Dr Farhana Sabri
Dr Farhana SabriDeputy Director (research), Islamic Science Institute, Associate Researcher, Malaysia Substance Abuse Council (MASAC)

The Ministry of Health Malaysia has recently announced about a gamechanger policy that it will embark – the decriminalization of drug addicts and addiction. The concept and the rationalization of this policy is clear.

The MOH states that decriminalization means the removal of criminal penalties for individuals who possess and use a small quantity of drugs for personal use. This clearly does not include drug traffickers, of which remain a crime.

For very long time, Malaysia has been treating drug addicts as criminal by putting them in prison, where there is limited intervention and treatment appropriate for drug addiction, let alone evidence-based treatment.  This gamechanger policy indicates that the government seriously acknowledges that drug addiction is a complex disease and it has to be treated as one.   The complexity of this disease is attributes to many factors that could result someone in drug addiction, may it be biologically, physiologically, psychologically, socio economic status, and demographic differences etcetera.  These factors demand a critical look from each factor in order to treat drug addiction holistically.

One of many ways of tackling this is by looking drug addiction from biology perspective, of when someone consumes drug, it changes the biological function of the brain and it is difficult to reverse that biological change. This explain why drug addiction is a relapsing disease and it takes a life-long recovery journey.

For the government to embark on this policy, medical treatment for drug addicts must be complemented with psychosocial treatment, which requires not only physician and pharmacists, but also psychologists and counselors who are expert in drug addiction. This leads to requiring more manpower to treat drug addict problems in Malaysia. The National Institute on Drug Addiction United States (NIDA) asserts in their treatment principles of addiction that

there is no single treatment of drug addiction that can suit to all addiction problems. Thus, the treatment must be integrated-approach, which drug addicts themselves cannot be only the only one who receive treatment, but we also must offer help for their family members and significant others who got affected by the addiction problems.  This integrative approach will definitely need counselors, psychologists, and social services who can address these problems.

Furthermore, in many cases drug addiction is not a stand-alone problem for drug addicts. Many drug addicts are also suffering from mental health problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis symptoms (i.e., hallucination and delusions) simultaneously. A situation when a drug addict has drug use disorder and simultaneously experiences mental health disorder is called dual-diagnosis.  In this situation, its either one is developing mental health problems first followed by drug use problems or vice versa. Each disorder requires their own treatment plan, of which needs to be received by the drug addicts simultaneously in order to treat drug addiction problems effectively.

For the Ministry of Health of Malaysia, this game-changer policy not only involved physician and pharmacists, but also other experts – counselors, psychologists, and social workers. For this new policy to work, the government should also focus on developing these resources in order to treat drug addiction problems effectively in Malaysia.