Enhancing The Drug Dependants Bill For A Holistic Approach — Dr Prem Kumar Shanmugam

Counselling psychologist Dr Prem Kumar Shanmugam says assigning AADK, which lacks expertise, more responsibilities under the drug dependants bill may not be effective, while there are insufficient experts/ doctors in MOH to support methadone distribution.

The Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Bill 2024 currently under discussion in Parliament is undeniably a step in the right direction.

However, several critical areas need further clarification and discussion to ensure it truly serves the greater good.

Firstly, we must clearly define what recovery and addiction mean for those involved in this process. The terminology and perspective adopted by policymakers often differ significantly from those used in the private sector.

For instance, we refer to our clients as patients or recovering individuals, whereas policymakers often use the term “individuals with addiction.” This difference in terminology can significantly impact decision-making and the approach to treatment and recovery.

It is imperative that the input of all stakeholders is considered to ensure the new bill is robust and beneficial for everyone involved. The engagement with the private sector has been selective, and it is crucial that our sector is more involved in the decision-making process.

Policymakers aim to reduce treatment costs, alleviate socioeconomic issues, and support other departments like the police and the courts. However, the private sector also emphasises the quality of treatment, which must not be compromised.

We have much to learn from the experiences of our neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, our policymakers have not yet engaged with experts from other countries regarding this new bill, but it is not too late to do so.

For example, before allowing casinos to be established, Singapore involved private sector individuals, treatment providers, the public, and experts from other countries. In contrast, Thailand’s decision to legalise cannabis for social use to boost tourism failed due to various operational and social issues.

As Malaysia revisits this law, we cannot afford to make mistakes that will have massive legal and reputational impacts. The bill also fails to address the issue of possession adequately.

If we aim to be more accepting of individuals with drug addiction problems, we must consider how much they can carry and consume.

Current urine tests have proven unreliable in identifying those with addictions, and there are concerns about individuals unknowingly consuming substances and facing charges.

Moreover, the bill includes a punitive clause that fines family members of children who breach the law or regulations, discouraging families from seeking help for their children.

The Agensi Anti Dadah Kebangsaan (AADK) is once again proposed to be in charge, despite their lack of expertise in the past. Assigning them even more responsibilities does not seem like a recipe for success.

The involvement of the Ministry of Health (MOH) has been beneficial, particularly with the methadone programme for heroin addiction. However, there are insufficient experts and doctors within the MOH to support methadone distribution, and we lack harm-reduction medication for other drugs.

To bridge this gap, policymakers should consider involving the private sector. At Solace Asia, we have reached out multiple times to offer our support and share our technology and experience, but our efforts have not been met with much response.

We urge the government to consider partnering with the public, and even possibly the private-public partnership (PPP) model which has been successfully implemented in other countries.

Why can’t this work for Malaysia? Before enacting this bill into law, we strongly encourage the government to partner with private facilities and non-government organisations (NGOs) already operating rehabilitation centres in the country.

Form a committee involving the MOH, the police, and the private sector to make joint decisions, rather than leaving the decision in the hands of a single, under-skilled officer.

There are many experts with diverse knowledge, experience, and treatment methodologies who can significantly reduce the harm caused by addiction.

Studies increasingly show that punishment and abstinence are not the only ways forward. Many in the industry now emphasise sustainable recovery as a future, more effective approach to this disease.

It is not too late to consider our suggestions. Delay the bill. Do not approve it now. Take more time to study it, as many aspects can be strengthened for the benefit of all.

Dr Prem Kumar Shanmugam is an adjunct professor and counselling psychologist, and also CEO and founder of Solace Asia.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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