Drug Dependants Bill Overdoses On MPs’ Bipartisan Criticisms

After an overdose of criticisms from MPs on both sides of the divide, particularly on AADK’s capacity to diagnose and treat drug addiction, it’s unclear if the drug dependants bill will be passed next week or sent to rehab in a Parliament select committee.

KUALA LUMPUR, July 5 — The Dewan Rakyat yesterday witnessed bipartisan brickbats against the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Bill 2024, with some MPs calling for the bill to be referred to a parliamentary committee for further review.

So far, 33 MPs have debated the bill over the last two days that started late Wednesday after its first reading on Tuesday. Three more MPs – Beruas, Mas Gading, and Sibu – are expected to debate the bill next Tuesday before Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail delivers his wind-up speech.

Both government and Opposition MPs have largely supported the bill’s overarching aim to decriminalise drug use and addiction, but voiced reservations over its application in major provisions of the bill.

Most MPs across party lines from Pakatan Harapan (PH), Barisan Nasional (BN), and Perikatan Nasional (PN) questioned the qualification of rehabilitation officers from the National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK) to serve as the primary authority in determining addiction and treatment.

Other concerns included AADK’s readiness to handle an increase in drug dependents, legal overlaps between the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act 1983 and Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA) 1952, and insufficient stakeholder engagement.

Multiple MPs from both the government backbench and Opposition suggested referring the drug dependants bill to a parliamentary special select committee (PSSC).

Ramkarpal Singh (PH-Bukit Gelugor), a criminal lawyer and former deputy law minister, said the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) 2024 amendment bill, which mandates a magistrate to follow recommendations made by AADK’s rehabilitation officers rather than medically trained doctors, lacks clarity on the officers’ qualifications.

“This is crucial because the entire act involves these rehabilitation officers. The question is, why don’t we involve Ministry of Health (MOH) officials under this Act? This effort is commendable as it aims to shift this issue from the criminal justice system to a treatment approach. But this can only be achieved with the involvement of MOH,” Ramkarpal said.

“While this Act has good intentions, it has many issues, and I urge the government not to rush through this bill. We need to take it back, we have to reconsider a lot of aspects, and we have to be very much engaged with civil societies to achieve positive outcomes,” he added.

Ramkarpal was instrumental in the passage of an amendment to the Penal Code in May last year to decriminalise attempted suicide.

In recent years, the government has been reviewing many of the country’s laws as part of a prison reform framework, prompted by Malaysia’s incarceration rate exceeding the global average reported by the World Prison Brief (WPB).

The world prison population rate, based on United Nations estimates of national population levels, is 140 per 100,000 population. Rates vary significantly across regions; southern Asian countries have a median rate of 85, while Southeast Asian countries average 171.

Malaysia’s prison population rate, at 217 per 100,000 of the national population according to WPB data updated in February 2023, exceeds both the global and regional averages.

Azman Nasrudin (PN-Padang Serai) questioned the training of AADK officers and the reliability of urine tests in determining addiction.

“Why is there no balance of power between the MOH and AADK? Verifying drug use requires medical expertise because addiction is often accompanied with mental health disorders and other morbidities,” said Azman, who is formerly from PKR.

“However, AADK is granted absolute power through urine testing, determining (of addiction), placement in treatment centres, and treatment duration. How can this be allowed?”

Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman (Muda-Muar) proposed that the government form a panel, modelled after Portugal’s drug decriminalisation policy, comprising legal, health, and social work professionals – specifically medical officers from MOH and rehabilitation officers from AADK – to jointly assess drug dependence and treatment options.

He argued that such a panel would ensure fairness and collective decision-making, as medical expertise is needed alongside efforts by the Home Affairs Ministry (KDN), which alone may not suffice.

“This panel would facilitate inclusive discussions and joint decision-making because, despite good intentions, reliance solely on KDN is insufficient. It is crucial to engage medical experts (with medical interventions) through MOH,” Syed Saddiq said.

Yeo Bee Yin (PH-Puchong), citing a Lancet article on Portugal’s policy, said that Portugal’s approach was not only to decriminalise drug use. but involved treating addiction as an illness that required comprehensive medical, psychological, and social support.

Yeo said a holistic approach is needed to tackle underlying issues such as homelessness, unstable housing, mental health disorders, poverty, racial inequalities, and inadequate access to health care, that can all contribute to drug use.

“My question is, when we amend the law to decriminalise drug dependence and misuse, are we ready to provide extensive treatment and recovery support? Are we equipped with comprehensive psychological and social infrastructure? We cannot cherry-pick one aspect and neglect the rest,” the DAP lawmaker said.

Yeo cited another internationally published study, which identifies MDMA or ecstasy, methamphetamine or ICE, and ketamine as among the most commonly used illegal drugs in Kuala Lumpur, described as “next generation drugs”.

“I was informed by a private rehabilitation centre in my area that the physiological recovery from addiction to next generation drugs typically requires at least two weeks of confinement.

“But the most crucial aspect of rehabilitation is not physiological, but addressing the mental addiction and their social circle. I would like to know what steps the government is taking to address these challenges faced by people who are dependent on next generation drugs and how they are addressing mental addiction and social aspects to help them build a new life?”

Vivian Wong (PH-Sandakan) highlighted a need to increase AADK’s capacity to accommodate existing and new individuals requiring rehabilitation if the bill is passed.

Malaysia currently has 30 Narcotic Addiction Rehabilitation Centres (Puspen), with just one in Sabah, located in Papar. The Puspen in Papar has an existing capacity of 300 but is catering to 400 individuals, Wong said.

“We must expand these facilities before initiating moving individuals on a large scale into treatment. Otherwise, Puspen will become overcrowded,” Wong said, adding that a new Puspen in Tawau is expected to accommodate 500 patients.

“Are two Puspen in Sabah sufficient?”

She also pointed out that since Puspen services are mandatory, high relapse rates could pose challenges. According to statistics provided by KDN during a briefing with government MPs, AADK has 75,291 clients nationwide, with 9,919 undergoing treatment and rehabilitation in institutions.

“Is Puspen prepared to accommodate an additional 12,768 individuals currently in prison?”

Mohd Suhaimi Abdullah (PN-Langkawi) shared his experience visiting an AADK rehabilitation centre in Johor, which he described as being in appalling condition and operating over capacity.

“I visited an AADK centre with the Deputy Speaker. Masya Allah, it was dirty! The place, meant for 500 people, was housing over 1,200 – this was in Johor.

“If we entrust AADK with rehabilitation, treatment, enforcement, and monitoring, are they capable of handling all this? Are they experts?”

Cha Kee Chin (PH-Rasah) suggested for the amendment bill to be referred to a PSSC to ensure all stakeholders are engaged.

“I don’t see any reference to a special PSSC related to KDN, I’m not sure if it exists or not. I don’t see any referral to the PSSC. If we’re talking about institutional reforms that we want under Malaysia Madani, it should be referred to the PSSC.

“If yesterday, the Agriculture and Food Security Ministry’s Limited Liability Partnerships (PLT) bill was referred to the PSSC with good cooperation, I hope this matter can also be referred to the PSSC.

“Also, engage with various parties, has there been engagement involving all parties? Because I know there are pros and cons. Some support it and others have different views,” said the DAP lawmaker.

It’s unclear if there’s a specific PSSC for KDN; there is a Security PSSC. If the government decides to refer the bill, the home minister can create a new PSSC specifically for the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) 2024 amendment bill, similar to what former Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin did with the tobacco and vape control bill in the 14th Parliament.

Saifuddin can also choose to send the KDN bill to an existing PSSC, such as the Health PSSC, given the health objectives of the bill.

Teresa Kok (PH-Seputeh) highlighted concerns raised by civil societies about the fate of those currently imprisoned under the DDA for drug-related offences, calling for a moratorium on Section 15 of the DDA. Section 15 of the primary legislation on drugs criminalises self-administration of dangerous drugs.

“The minister said there are 74,459 inmates, and many of them are drug users. What will happen to all inmates imprisoned under the DDA once this bill is approved by Parliament?

“The minister mentioned this bill will replace Section 15 of the DDA, which imposes a penalty not exceeding RM5,000 or imprisonment of at least two years. However, the government has not made any amendments to Section 15 of the DDA, nor provided provisions giving this Act the authority to become the primary law regulating drug misuse and dependency.

“I suggest the government introduce a moratorium on Section 15 of the DDA and require all enforcement agencies that arrest or investigate individuals involved in drug misuse or dependency to process them under this Act,” Kok said.

The DAP lawmaker added that if the government is serious about amending the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act to remove the view of drug addicts as criminals and decriminalise drug addiction, the bill should be under the purview of the MOH, not KDN.

She agreed with suggestions that the bill be referred to the PSSC to engage with more stakeholders before it is passed in Parliament.

Mas Ermieyati Samsudin (PN-Masjid Tanah) said she was “surprised” at the lack of engagement with civil societies in amending a law with such significant impact.

“Even when NGOs (non-governmental organisations) wanted to meet with AADK or KDN, it seemed like they terhegeh-hegeh, which is unacceptable.

“To implement a major amendment under this bill, there should be thorough engagement. As I learned from Wan Junaidi Wan Jaafar, who is now the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sarawak, before doing anything, there must be extensive and active engagement sessions so all parties can contribute good ideas and views, especially those actively involved in drug addiction treatment.

“These stakeholders should be included and not ignored. I hope we can hold off amending this bill until we conduct engagement sessions and determine the best course of action.

“We don’t want anyone to be wronged. Even if there are methods or regulations in place later – those are good – but engagement must be done. I want to know the government’s justification for rushing this amendment,” said Mas Ermieyati, who is also the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairperson.

Wilfred Madius Tangau (PH-Tuaran), citing AADK statistics, noted that 145,526 drug addicts have been identified, but the real number could exceed half a million people in Malaysia.

A total of 53,072 people have been sent to prison for drug-related offences, comprising 70.4 per cent of all prisoners in the country, he said. Current prison capacity is 69,816 people.

Even as the former Upko president praised the government’s “noble intentions” in amending the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act, he cited several gaps (“kelompangan”) in the bill.

These include punishment of maximum two years’ jail and whipping not exceeding three strokes for violating conditions while in community treatment; “absolute powers” for AADK rehab officers; and an “unfair” RM5,000 fine on parents of underaged drug users who violate treatment conditions.

The government backbencher suggested referring the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) 2024 amendment bill to a PSSC to enable engagements with civil societies, academics, medical experts, and NGOs.

“We cannot accept it as it is now,” Madius told CodeBlue.

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