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Despite recent shifts in the government’s attitude towards drug issues, public sentiments remain largely negative. We explore the possible reasons behind this and call for a more constructive messaging approach.
By Joey Goh & Jia Vern Tham25 March 2022
Early this year, a video of 19-year-old Daniel Iskandar being washed like a corpse as ‘punishment’ for stealing a donation box in a Selangor mosque went viral. The video initially sparked public outrage, but perceptions quickly changed when news broke that the teen was found to be positive for drugs at the time of the recording. He was swiftly labelled with derogatory terms such as ‘kaki dadah’ and ‘penagih’.
Reactions towards Daniel’s case is just one example of the long-standing stigma towards Persons Who Use Drugs (PWUDs) in Malaysia. His case is not isolated; similar reactions can also be seen, for example, to a 7-minute video published by local NGO Peluang in which a PWUD shares her traumatic experience with the country’s legal process after committing a minor drug offence.
* We previously wrote about the impact of the over-incarceration of minor drug offenders on prison overcrowding in Malaysia here.
Person Who Use Drugs (PWUD) is an umbrella term that encompasses the spectrum of drug users ranging from minor drug offenders to drug users who suffer from substance abuse or addiction disorder.
Negative public perception towards PWUDs is hardly anything surprising in Malaysia, where decades of a war on drugs waged by authorities have inevitably left a lasting impression on the people. This sentiment, however, comes with consequences that go far beyond name-calling; research on the impact of stigma against PWUDs show that it significantly harms their recovery as well as reintegration into society.
Malaysia is not the only country with a history of a tough approach towards drugs. Ever since President Richard Nixon declared drugs as America’s ‘public enemy number one’ in 1971, countries around the world have followed suit and waged their own wars against drugs. A key aspect to supporting the anti-drug campaign has been messaging, which has helped shape negative public opinion towards not only drugs, but also drug dependents and drug offenders. Policy documents, traditional media, and – nowadays – social media are some of the channels through which this sentiment has been shaped. Research has shown that wars on drugs are sustained through rigorous messages in government campaigns and the media, which in turn are used to justify harsher penalties for drug offences.
In Malaysia, ever since drugs were declared as the ‘Main Threat to Society’ in 1983, the government’s messaging effort has focused on creating a hostile rhetoric towards drugs through the adoption of fear tactics — as seen in national campaigns such as ‘The More You Use The Less You Live’ and ‘Perangi Dadah Habis-Habisan’. To date, the national policy on drugs still reflects the same, punitive narrative towards drug use which tends to frame PWUDs as potential criminals who would commit crime to finance their addiction.
Such narratives do not end at the policy level. Media reports of PWUD-related cases have long been profiling them as potential criminals or socially problematic individuals by nature. An analysis of 904 drug-related news articles that we conducted between August 2019 and January 2020 — after former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad announced the Pakatan Harapan government’s plan to decriminalise drug possession for personal use — shows that media attention is primarily focused on the criminal aspect of drug-related issues; we found that 41% of news reports are on capture and arrest, 28% on raids by law enforcement, and only a mere 7% covered drug policy related topics:
On top of that, around 21% of all news reports highlight drug use prominently despite it being an indicidental factor to other crimes; 12% of all news reports also highlight the convict’s previous drug charges, further framing and suggesting an association between ‘drugs’ and ‘crime’ to the audience. While it has been some time since our analysis was conducted, recent headlines suggest that our findings unfortunately still hold.
Such messaging approaches, both by the government and the media, only stand to reinforce an already hardened societal stigma towards PWUDs. A 2020 study found that stigmatising language such as ‘addicts’ and ‘abusers’ create more barriers for PWUDs to either get help or reintegrate into society. In the case of Malaysia, PWUDs struggle to access opportunities such as employment, education, housing, and loans. Stories from formerly incarcerated PWUDs would describe the hardship they face in finding shelter after being released from prison, causing them to go homeless. With the lack of social support, many end up reverting to old habits — as reflected in the steady increase of recidivism rate among drug offenders in Malaysia since 2015.
Today, as policymakers consider more science-backed and rehabilitative approaches to dealing with drug-related issues in Malaysia, we believe that the way PWUDs are portrayed in government and media messaging efforts should also change. As a start, there is a need to be more discerning about the socioeconomic factors that contribute to drug use – an aspect the news media tend to overlook when reporting on drug related matters. A more holistic and constructive reporting method when it comes to drug related matters could help change the way society views PWUDs. As observed in the case of Canada, reforming the way the media reports news (by emphasising public health instead of crime perspectives when reporting on drug cases, for example) can and does bring about shifts in public discourse about drugs and PWUDs.
Understanding the factors associated with drug use – socioeconomic (as mentioned above) as well as demographic – would also give policymakers a chance to better strategise their preventive effort in the future and tailor more fitting preventive programs to different targeted populations. It could be a first step towards eliminating societal stigma surrounding PWUDs.
Beyond preventive efforts, education is key in the long run. Educating the public with facts about drugs could empower them to form more informed opinions. This approach brought about a favourable outcome in Iceland, where the country saw a significant reduction of adolescent substance abuse after incorporating a multifaceted prevention program at the school level. The Icelandic government not only focused on compulsory substance abuse education, but also emphasised on strengthening community and family support networks through various state-sponsored after school programs — something we could perhaps learn from to foster a more inclusive and rehabilitative environment for PWUDs.
Ultimately, people hear what they are told to hear when it comes to drugs and PWUDs. It will undeniably take considerable effort to reform the way we think about them as a society, but one that is important and long overdue. Until this changes, however, we should remember that those like Daniel deserve empathy, not derogation.