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Editorial Societal Contracts

Covid-19 Clusters in Overcrowded Prisons and The Role of Malaysia’s Drug Laws

The costly repercussions of our country’s response to minor drug offences.

By Jia Vern Tham & Nelleita Omar22 February 2021


Out of the six Malaysian prisons hit by Covid-19 outbreaks by October last year, four were found to be operating at overcapacity. As of 3 November 2020, Malaysia’s prisons were reported to house over 40% more than their intended capacity of 46,420 individuals. The situation is particularly severe for some institutions such as the Alor Setar Prison, which was reported to be operating at twice its capacity. 

Covid-19 has laid bare the costly consequences of many long-standing issues, including the state of Malaysia’s prisons. The spread of Covid-19 within prisons, aptly described by Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah as “ticking timebombs”, underscores the issue of overpopulation in prisons as well as the unsanitary and dilapidated conditions of these institutions.

*We previously wrote about the impact of overcrowded living spaces for migrant workers in Malaysia here.

In response to the prison-related Covid-19 clusters, on 15 December 2020 the Home Ministry announced that 10,000 inmates have been sent to rehabilitation centres while 11,000 undocumented migrants will be deported this year. Parliament has also taken notice. Late last year, a Joint Select Committee on the Reform of Prisons and Detention Centres, a joint effort between the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara, was formed specifically to tackle prison overcrowding. 

Prison overcrowding is undoubtedly a complex and multifaceted issue. The Parliamentary Joint Select Committee and the Home Ministry may be considering a range of solutions, including additional investment in infrastructure. However, before Malaysia considers adding to the current stock of prisons, we strongly propose that policymakers address one crucial and very relevant factor: the over-incarceration of minor drug offenders.

Filling up prisons with low-level drug offenders?

Public health experts have been sounding the alarm on the risks posed by COVID-19 and prison overcrowding. Sandra Chu, Director of Research and Advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, noted that simple possession charges resulting in jail time would put such offenders in an even more dangerous situation during a pandemic. Dainius Pūras, a UN Special Rapporteur, went as far as to call for a moratorium on the enforcement of laws criminalising drug use and possession to reduce the risks involved.

In the case of Malaysia, the sheer numbers serve to support these concerns. The population of drug offenders in Malaysian prisons has long been significant – unsurprising given Malaysia’s very strict drug laws. An estimated two thirds of inmates in Malaysia’s prisons are convicted for drug-related offences.

Today, imprisoned drug offenders include everyone from traffickers, to individuals convicted for possession, to those who happened to test positive for drugs in a urine test. It does not take much to be sent to prison for drugs. Speaking to CodeBlue, consultant psychiatrist Dr Sivakumar Thurairajasingam said that public medical officers would immediately consider a suspected drug user to be ‘dependent’ on drugs if a test result comes back positive, even if it was the suspect’s first time trying narcotics. As for drug possession, small amounts of non-hardcore drugs such as marijuana could also land a person in prison.

Penalties for minor drug offences in Malaysia

Drug possession: Under the Dangerous Drugs Act, a person found with under 5 grams of poppy seeds or marijuana could face up to 5 years in jail or a maximum fine of RM20,000, or both.

Drug use: Two laws currently govern offences involving drug use, the Dangerous Drugs Act and the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act. Under the Dangerous Drugs Act, drug users face a maximum fine of RM5,000 and a jail sentence of up to two years, while under the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act, drug users are put through mandatory rehabilitation as well as supervision for a total of four years.

According to Section 38(B) of the Dangerous Drugs Act, a drug user would first have to serve the sentence under Section 15 of the same act, before undergoing supervision under the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in prisons appears to have forced corrective action on drug offender over-incarceration, by necessity. The Prison Department has outlined mitigation measures including transferring 2,800 minor drug offenders to temporary facilities, and requesting for others to be placed on the perimeter of prisons for them to be rehabilitated.

These are clearly temporary measures, and addressing prison overcrowding beyond Covid-19 will take more than ad hoc inmate transfers to makeshift facilities. A more sensible and long-term solution is needed for minor offenders, particularly minor drug offenders. It bears repeating that an estimated two-thirds of Malaysia’s current prison population is made up of drug offenders. If we assume conservatively that only half of that number is made up of minor drug offenders (the number is likely higher; as of 2017 56% of inmates were reportedly in jail for minor drug offences), removing that proportion would have significantly eased overcrowding in the four Covid-19 hit prisons as illustrated below:

Sources: Parliamentary reply by the Home Minister on 17 June 2019; statement by the Director General of the Prisons Department on 6 October 2020. Simple calculation by The Centre. Prison population figures as of June 2019.

Slow march to rehabilitation

The rationale and effectiveness of Malaysia’s drug laws have been increasingly questioned, particularly for minor drug offences. Even before Covid-19 there have been calls to review Malaysia’s drug laws and to take on a more cure-based approach to drug addiction. Prominent figures, including infectious disease specialist Prof Dato’ Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Spiritually Enhanced Drug Addiction Rehabilitation (SEDAR) Program head Dr Rusdi bin Abdul Rashid, and Director of USM’s Centre for Drug Research Prof Dr Vicknasingam Kasinather have long been vocal advocates of medically treating and rehabilitating drug users in Malaysia.

Real policy and legislative reform work on the other hand has been taking some time. In 2017, then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman first mooted a sentencing review for different levels and seriousness of drug possession and trafficking. In 2019, a special committee comprising the Health Ministry, the Youth and Sports Ministry as well as the National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) was set up and had reportedly agreed to work towards removing criminal penalties against minor drug offenders.

More recently, the Perikatan Nasional government is said to have deliberated a new law to replace the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act later this year. The new law plans to place drug users in rehabilitation and treatment programs instead of prison. Nevertheless, drug use still falls under the purview of the Dangerous Drugs Act and until relevant provisions under this Act are amended, it remains to be seen whether the announced new law will be cohesive and effective.

In addition and very importantly, there is still the remaining issue of minor drug possession offences. Until this is addressed, disproportionate sentencing and overcrowded prisons may still be a likely state of affairs.

Drug Decriminalisation is the removal of criminal charges and penalties such as prison sentences for possessing and/or using small quantities of narcotics.

The concept has strong proponents as well as critics. Activists such as the Malaysian Drug Policy Reform Alliance advocate it, citing local studies that showed the comparative cost and effectiveness of prison vs. drug rehabilitation. Others such as the former IGP Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hassan and criminal lawyer Datuk Rosal Azimin Ahmad have argued that the move would encourage drug use and further burden law enforcers.

Will COVID-19 change our approach?

The pandemic has served as a deadly reminder of issues long overdue. Drug law reform is necessary, not only because of prison overcrowding, but also for a simpler reason: effectiveness. Progressive drug policies have proven to lower the burden on criminal justice systems and decrease drug use, among other benefits. Portugal provides a clear example: after decriminalising drugs in 2001, the country reported significant reductions in overdoses, HIV infection, and drug-related crimes. Similar benefits are also seen in Switzerland; nearly three decades after decriminalising drugs, the country recorded an 80% drop in new heroin users.

A number of jurisdictions have begun moving towards more progressive drug policies. The US state of Oregon decriminalised all drugs late last year. Australia introduced a draft bill last December to decriminalise personal possession of drugs. Advocates have welcomed the bill, saying that drug users will gain better access to healthcare while alleviating the strain on Australia’s criminal justice system. 

As Malaysia battles Covid-19, a concrete plan to amend our punitive drug laws is more crucial than ever. A rehabilitative system would not only alleviate the vast population of drug offenders in prison right now, but also bring about a more effective approach to dealing with drug dependency.


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