By Zofia Reych
“Drug-Free ASEAN by 2015” was a near farcical attempt at ridding the region of the scourge of meth, opium, heroin and others. Various leaders wanted people to believe that frequent police drug raids and harsh sentences were enough to discourage those making their living from the industry. But whether it’s labourers working in atrocious conditions and earning pennies in clandestine labs across Asia, or mighty drug lords, it seems that they are not scared of the potential consequences, and the authorities need to come up with a different plan.
Recently, a new program was introduced to crack down on drug trafficking in Myanmar, the poorest country in the region which, at the same time, remains the world’s largest producer of opium. Yet it seems that it’s not only the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand that should be the focus of anti-drugs operations, as Malaysia is on its way to match the infamous area. Moving from trafficking to production, the country is becoming an international drug hub.
Capital punishment isn’t enough
In 2011 the eyes of the world turned to Malaysia as a British expat and a “Welsh mum”, Shivaun Orton, faced the possibility of the gallows over an accusation of drug possession. In the end, she was spared the death sentence and only jailed for 17 months, but those found guilty of more serious offences can’t hope for such leniency. Recently, a Japanese woman and a Romanian man were sentenced to death for drug trafficking in two separate trials. Yet as the Malaysian drug industry continues to grow, capital punishment is clearly not enough to tackle the problem.
Malaysian prisons are full of drug offenders, with more than half of all inmates having been being sentenced for a drug related crime. (The situation is even worse in Thailand where over 70% of inmates are serving drug related sentences.) Government officials have described drug crime as the country’s “biggest enemy” and pledged to continue the fight against it.
However, filling jails with drug offenders isn’t enough. It is the efforts to curb drug addiction among the public and drastically minimising demand that are a long term solution. Official figures state that approximately 1.1% of the Malaysian public is involved in drug abuse (most often heroine and methamphetamine), but the scale of the problem is likely much bigger. Efforts must be made to deliver effective social campaigns and educational programs, in schools and elsewhere, to curb addiction levels. For now, programs like this remain a rare novelty.
The National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK) warns that Malaysia is now not only a major trafficking hub, but that manufacturers increasingly choose to move their production locally. ‘Cooks’ from abroad are transported to the country to lead clandestine labs producing various types of drugs – most often amphetamine, locally known as syabu. Ecstasy pills are also a common produce, as in the case of the recently raided lab in Taman Sri Petaling, where the police have ceased 8.1 RM million street worth of drugs, as well as guns and stolen vehicles. The equipment used by the facility was imported from China butthe men operating it were locals.
Worryingly, syabu is also increasingly being obtained from readily available medicines, making it more accessible to the wider public and increasing its popularity among students.
In poorer countries of the region, notably Laos and Myanmar, it is mostly austerity that pushes the poorest into the drug industry. Malaysia’s problem is more similar to the West: presenting drugs to youngsters, small time dealers are responsible for a surge in domestic drugs abuse, especially among the youth. Increasingly, illegal drugs don’t have to be exported as there is a growing domestic demand.
In the poorer states of the Golden Triangle, employing economy measures such as investments in agriculture and infrastructure, are often seen as the solution to the drug problem. In Malaysia, the media blame the recent surge in drugs production and use to “Western hedonism”, yet they never point to solutions that were employed in the West to curb the problem.
Professor Christopher Teh from Putra University suggests that following the path taken by countries such as Portugal or the Netherlands might be a good option. Decriminalisation would allow for more widespread access to treatment for addicts, and fewer deaths would be caused by the use of chemically contaminated drugs. As Teh argues, even the most severe penalties for drug crime are far outweighed by the benefits of being involved in the trade. Criminals controlling the industry perpetrate violence – much like during prohibition in the US, when historically the most crimes were committed.
Money spent on investigations and raids could be instead spent on education, prevention and treatment. State control over the use of at least some drugs could benefit both the users and the government, while putting criminals out of business.