COMMENT | I would like to congratulate the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Home Affairs for having eventually come to a common view on decriminalising drug users.
In essence, one has to understand that decriminalising drug usage is not tantamount to legalising its usage.
It is essentially aimed to state that the offence shall not be a criminal one but one which could still lead to other forms of sanctions, punishments, and restrictions.
Sale of drugs will remain a criminal activity, and the drugs sold and subsequently consumed are also illegal.
This approach strengthens the position that the drug trafficker is a criminal and the drug user a “socially sick” person who requires help and treatment.
Portugal through its Drug Policy in 2001 decriminalised the usage of drugs and brought it under the ambits of what was termed as “administrative offences”.
Under this, a drug user/addict will be subjected to a thorough assessment by the authorities and could be subjected to amongst others:
a) a fine;
b) suspension to the right to do certain jobs where they could endanger others;
c) withdrawal of the right to carry a gun; or any other sanctions as the authorities might deem fit to ensure society’s overall safety.
This was strongly linked to vigorous treatment and social rehabilitation programmes incorporating strong elements of community service.
It was also aimed to ensure that the fiscal and physical savings so obtained be directed towards tracking the criminals involved in drug trafficking and pushing.
I used to chair a joint meeting between the Ministry of Health and the National Anti-Drugs Agency on drug rehabilitation and treatment.
I have repeatedly expressed my disappointment at the current system whereby if one was tested positive for drugs, the chop of criminality is inflicted upon them, a scar with which they might have to live for the rest of their lives.
I have seen young civil servants losing their jobs and pushed into the vicious cycles of poverty and social instability.
They were sent for treatment and rehabilitation. Their subsequent reintegration into society was an uphill task. The Home Ministry had a guarded stand on this issue then.
Despite lingering fears, the Portuguese decision actually resulted in increasing the number of people seeking voluntary treatment, drastically reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted disease associated with drug usage, reducing drug-related deaths, and reducing drug-related criminal activities.
However, we must still be vigilant to the possibility that drug pushers and traffickers might attempt to use any loopholes that this policy shift creates, and masquerade as users.
It has to be a tightly sealed box.
DR S SUBRAMANIAM was the minister of health from 2013 until 2018. This article first appeared on his Facebook page.