Party drugs are fast reshaping the trend of drug abuse in the country, spreading aggressively to reach suburban schools and children as young as 11.
These drugs, covering a wide range of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and ketamine, are overtaking conventional opiate-based options due to their easy availability and a common misconception that they do not cause withdrawal symptoms.
Private drug rehabilitation centres reveal that almost 80% of their newcomers are users of such party drugs, also called synthetic or designer drugs.
Social workers describe the centres as psychiatric institutions because the inmates, many in their teens or 20s, struggle with brain damage and other detrimental side-effects.
New cases involving party drugs recorded a five-fold increase in the past eight years while heroin showed almost no increase, according to Dr Mahmud Mazlan, who runs seven clinics specialising in drug treatment.
The users are getting younger, too. Dr Mahmud said the patients were mostly in their early 20s in 2007, while in 2008, many of them were in their late teens.
However, this year, he has received patients as young as 12 and 15. Some social workers have even been approached by parents of users who were only 11.
"It has touched the younger and more vulnerable group. I have already received cases from semi-urban schools.
"Runners and pushers let the kids try the drugs for free for two weeks, and when they are hooked, the kids steal, extort or push the drugs to their friends to get their fix.
"Girls, sadly, often even offer sex for it," Dr Mahmud said when interviewed at his clinic in Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur.
He also has another clinic in Kuala Lumpur and others in Muar, Malacca, Seremban, Klang and Ipoh.
"The number of new synthetic drug users admitted into my clinics has doubled every year since the opening of my first clinic in 2001," said the doctor, who is working with Yale University on research pertaining to substance abuse.
Currently, his clinics have about 200 methamphetamine patients, compared to only two in 2001. Additionally, there are 40 ketamine-dependent patients in the clinics now.
"It has become an epidemic in South-East Asia and the United States, as well as in Malaysia. About 80% of ATS users are in Kuala Lumpur, followed by Penang and Johor," he added.
According to him, methamphetamine crystals (street names: syabu, ice) and tablets (WY, Pil Kuda, Yaba) have been available in the country since 1997, while ketamine was brought into the country around 2003.
The popularity of these drugs increased drastically about two years ago as the police urine test then could not detect their presence. Liquid Ecstasy, another designer drug whose use is spreading fast, can also deceive urine tests.
Dr Mahmud's study of 704 drug users in Malaysia between December 2006, and March 2009, showed that the sharp increase in party drug abuse would soon overtake the opiate-based options (refer graph on page 4). He said another focus group study concluded that several myths have also contributed to the swing in trends.
The myth about methamphetamine is that it is not addictive, while the opposite is true. Another misconception is that it helps one perform better - that it can help students concentrate, drivers stay alert or enhance sexual performance.
"However, the fact is that the drug makes one awkwardly confident. When the drug's effects fade after two to three days, the person becomes less than what he was. After one year, when dependency develops, they cannot perform at all without the drug, and become emotionally down or just live like zombies," he said.
The third myth is that methamphetamine does not cause withdrawal symptoms but the fact is that these occur two weeks after stopping its use.
"On top of all that, methamphetamine is easy to make even for someone who does not possess a degree in chemistry. Two of my patients tried their hands at it, but unfortunately, the concoction exploded and almost burned their face," he said.
He said although more people were suffering as a result of party drug abuse each year, there were only a handful of local physicians trained in this field, while the facilities and resources needed were expensive.
Dr Mahmud has set up a foundation to help stop the spread and regularly disseminates relevant information through his website www.substanceabuse.com.my.
Statistics on new addicts compiled by the National Anti-Drug Agency has also shown a steady expansion of the categories under ATS (refer table above), from 16.71% in 2007 to 24.26% in 2008 and 25.83% between January and September this year.
Not all party drug users show signs of addiction, thus, the number of actual users is much higher.
Agency assistant director-general (operations) Prof Dr Mahmood Nazar Mohammed said its Narcotics Treatment Centres (Puspen) in border towns have shown a sharp increase in ATS abusers.
The supply of such party drugs in Kelantan and Kedah comes from Thailand, he said, adding that all inmates in Sabah were ATS abusers.
"From our observation, it is mainly due to the drop in the availability of opiate-based drugs, as well as a drop in the number of abusers in these categories due to the effectiveness of methadone replacement and suboxona programmes," he said recently.
He said the agency would begin a pilot programme by the year-end to treat synthetic drug abusers, and has plans to establish a centre to solely treat ATS abusers, with the Health Ministry supplying psychiatric services.
He also said it was untrue that Puspen did not accept ATS abusers because of a lack of expertise and manpower.
"Most users do not carry signs of addition, and for addicts to be charged under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 that sends them to our rehabilitation centres, they have to be certified by medical practitioners.
"Still, a total of 150 drug users, including those charged under Sect 15(1)(A) of the Act, are in our community rehabilitative Matrix programme being carried out in Kelantan, Papar and Muar. We have recorded a 73% compliance rate of those who have been charged," he said.
Asked if current laws were an effective deterrent, he said the Act served as an instrument for early intervention, where the agency could advise abusers to stop.
Section 15(1)(A) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 covers any person who consumes or administers to himself any dangerous drugs. If convicted, they can be fined a maximum of RM5,000 or jailed up to two years.
Meanwhile, Dr Mahmud said family vigilance was the only option to prevent drug abuse.
"Having a child who consumes or abuses drug does not mean bad parenting," he said.
"I have very humble and admirable parents sending their children to me, including high-ranking elected representatives."
He advised parents to be wary of the early signs of abuse - abnormal sleep cycle, appetite and weight loss, asking for money, acting overly friendly or, in the more advanced stage, becoming verbally abusive.
He said parents should also look out for sachets containing a salt-like substance, or "bonk", an apparatus to snort syabu.
November 23, 2009