Depressing Déjà vu for Malaysia’s Narcotics Nightmare
40-plus years of tough drug programs have had almost no effect other than filling prisons
By: Murray Hunter
In 1983, in a country where drug use had become an epidemic, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad rammed through what was regarded as some of the world’s toughest drug toughest programs. Authorities developed an intensive two-year rehab program for heroin and opium addicts, then the drug of choice, reorganized and expanded drug enforcement, and enacted the death penalty for minute traces of drugs including marijuana, which much of the world is now legalizing.
Thirty-seven years later, there is little indication that Malaysia’s no-holds-barred battle against drugs has had any effect. Although 200 grams of cannabis can still earn users the death penalty along with 40 grams of cocaine or 15 grams of heroin, statistics indicate there were 142,199 substance abusers and addicts in 2019, a figure believed massively understated. Few of those arrested are traffickers, an indication of possible protection in high places. A recent report by Amnesty International, 44 percent of people sentenced to death for trafficking are poor foreign nationals – drug mules.
Many law enforcement officials believe up to a million Malaysians could be addicted to drugs, a figure widely in use in the mid-1980s and an indication that little has changed. That figure represents almost three percent of the population although it is skewed heavily towards Malay youth, meaning the problem is a good deal more serious. Those aged 19-39 make up 72 percent of the official statistics. Drug-taking in secondary schools is also reported to be rampant among students aged 13 and above.
Malaysia’s illicit drug trade has allowed organized crime, once eliminated from urban and town areas by the authorities, to re-establish across the country in new forms including import cartels and street distribution organizations. This has also provided opportunities for corruption by members of various Malaysian law enforcement authorities. In August 2019, authorities seized US$161 million worth of drugs in a single haul, an indication that the country remains a major transit point for illegal drugs down the peninsula to Indonesia and Australia. Little more than a month ago, police in the Indonesian province of Aceh sized 81 kg of meth and other substances that they said had been transshipped through Malaysia.
Until the 1990s, heroin, other opiate derivatives and marijuana and hashish were the drugs of choice, leading to an HIV epidemic. However, methamphetamine derivatives shabu, yaba, and ice crept into the hip-pop and techno identities, primarily in urban and town areas. According to some on the frontline, meths use now comprises 75 percent of drug abuse. Other substances like ketamine and cocaine use are on the rise. Much of the distribution of meths-based drugs came to be controlled by local and foreign criminal syndicates, from shop-based locations and social media.
Today, the center of illicit drug usage is rural. Pahang, the big state to the east of Kuala Lumpur, tops the number of registered drug addicts, followed by Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis, the peninsular northern and east coast states. Malay youths have turned once peaceful and safe rural communities into crime-ridden locales.
While Malay females generally take up steady work or pursue higher education opportunities, males tend to linger lethargically around kampongs where peer pressure and boredom drive them to drugs. This may begin with glue sniffing at school, eating, drinking or smoking locally grown ketum leaves, a locally grown psychotropic plant. They also smoke ganja – marijuana – and later move onto ice or other meth derivatives.
Although 157,677 people were arrested for various drug offences in 2018, official statistics under-represent the true numbers. In many rural areas, police tend to take the issue up with families and local imams rather than putting the perpetrator/victims through the formal legal process.
Consequently, addicted Malay youths are unable to hold down steady jobs, take on further study, or even help on their parent’s farms or businesses. They congregate, pursuing dangerous mat rempit activities – Illegal street racing, stunt bike activities and petty crime such as snatch and house robberies. These stunts often lead to injury and death, while local communities feel terrorized, and unsafe.
There are even cases of youths terrorizing their parents with knives or parangs to get cash to buy drugs. Some engage in the capture and trade of endangered animal species like Tokay Geckos or become small time distributors of drugs, even though these activities carry harsh penalties.
Although arak or alcoholic drinks are haram or prohibited in the Quran and Hadiths, there is nothing explicitly mentioned about the use of illicit drugs, making them more culturally acceptable. Idleness, lack of opportunities, strong peer influence of Malay group relationships within the Malay culture, have fostered an environment ripe to nurture drug abuse and addiction.
Other youth are curious about trying their counterparts are using. Many move on from sniffing glue while at school to other drugs later on. There are also elements of rebellion against a repressive society that demands strict conformity. Many parental examples among the uneducated Malay rural folk, who use ketum on the excuse of minor ailments such as a sore back, are poor leadership examples. Large numbers of police themselves are users of methamphetamine, according to spot checks.
Many crime syndicates in Malaysia are comprised of foreign nationals from Taiwan, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other ASEAN countries, importing drugs from Thailand and Myanmar. New sources of methamphetamine production in Taiwan have driven down street prices.
However, over the past few years local syndicates have risen, using Iranian and Taiwanese chemists to locally produce meths in clandestine laboratories all over the country. Syndicates already involved in extortion, loan sharking, gambling, prostitution, robbery, and human trafficking, have been attracted into the lucrative business.
The marginalization of Indian youth in Malaysia has led many into the illicit drug distribution trade. Armed gangs regularly clash in gang turf wars, which are violent and bloody. These gangs often have law enforcement and even political connections. These gangs are purported to be cooperating with Indian syndicates importing ketamine and ephedrine into Malaysia from India.
Many police and other law enforcement officers on low salaries are themselves susceptible to the lure of narco-money from organized importation and distribution groups. Annual profits from drug distribution are estimated to be RM1.2 billion, a figure that appears low. Many rumors circulate about MPs involved in the trade. Asia Sentinel is aware of one northern MP and former chief minister who is cultivating ketum within his home state.
Some argue that it is political corruption that enables these syndicates to operate unheeded. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) was reported as stating that drug trafficking and other organized crime are growing due to power abuse among enforcement agencies.
The Drug Dependents (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act 1983 that Mahathir rammed through has been criticized for being too punitive where an empathetic medical approach would bring better results. Some academics and frontline practitioners argue for an amendment to The Dangerous Drugs Act (Amendment) 2014 to provide a new definition for ketum leaves and marijuana to decriminalize use. That would partly alleviate prison crowding by minor offenders who compound their drug abuse from wide availability in prisons. Globally cannabis is increasingly accepted, with movements even in the United Nations toward decriminalization.
Secondly, reformers advocate a new cannabis importation, possession, cultivation, distribution regime for medical use, which would greatly decrease the burden – and temptation – on law enforcement. The cost of running prisons for drug offenders runs at more than RM400 million per annum. However, there is no unanimous agreement, with some arguing that decriminalization might lead some youth to try these substances.
Rehabilitation is extremely important for meths dependence, as it is a difficult drug to shake. Rehabilitation can lead to psychotic disorders including paranoid schizophrenia during withdrawal. Detox can spark heavy bouts of depression, leading to difficulty in re-integrating into society drug-free. Most Malaysian rehabilitation centers have been criticized for not providing proper treatment, still using cold turkey techniques. The cost of private centers opening up to treat drug addiction are far out of reach of the majority of addicts and their families.
The decades-long fight against illicit drugs has been futile with drug addiction and drug related crime continuing to climb. The underlying causes of poverty, family instability issues, lack of opportunity, poor education opportunities, for male Malay youths are not being tackled. Recent statistics also indicate that substance abuse is now rising at a higher rate among females.
The increasing size of drug busts just indicates that plenty of material is flooding into Malaysia. Even Malaysia’s porous borders, where crossings have been closed for the Covid-19 pandemic, haven’t slowed importation.
There are still inconsistencies from the government as to how this epidemic should be approached. Law enforcers still see drug addiction as a crime requiring punitive action. Meanwhile quickly growing syndicates are working hand-in-hand with corrupt law enforcement officers. This is concerning when 50 percent of crimes committed in Malaysia are now drug-related.
Murray Hunter is a Southeast Asia-based development specialist and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.
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