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FEATURE: Malaysians sober up to dangers of ecstasy

What began as a weekend drug for yuppies in Malaysia’s trendy nightspots has become the latest nightmare for authorities in the country, where ecstasy use is soaring despite the threat of long jail terms and the death sentence for those who take it.

Police and drug enforcement authorities say the illicit sale and manufacture of ecstasy, which is sold as multi-coloured pills with names like “Playboy” and “Love”, is booming as more young people get hooked on the “feel good” drug.

Ecstasy, which first appeared in Malaysia four years ago at discos specializing in techno dance music, was smuggled in via neighbouring Thailand from European countries, namely Holland and Belgium.

Since then, local drug syndicates, lured by the massive profits made in producing ecstasy pills, have set up clandestine backyard laboratories to manufacture the amphetamine-type drug at cheaper prices.

In southern Johore state, which lies across from Singapore, police have busted seven such labs so far. The chemicals needed to produce ecstasy, such as ephedrine, are believed to be smuggled in with false customs declarations or via courier firms.

An imported ecstasy pill can cost up to 200 ringgit (52.6 dollars), but those made locally, which are usually adulterated with stimulants, sell for as low as 15 ringgit each.

What was once an expensive habit of the well-to-do has now become affordable to even teenaged school students, and alarmed Malaysian authorities have begun a nationwide blitz to stamp out ecstasy.

“It’s a grave problem of great concern and the worse part is, most young people don’t seem to realize the latent danger of the drug,” said Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Ong Tee Keat.

“Many times, youths take ecstasy because it’s something fashionable or because of peer pressure as they don’t want to be left out,” he said in an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Statistics by police and drug enforcement authorities show that 648 people have been arrested for trafficking ecstasy pills since 1996 in Malaysia, while 130,000 pills were seized in raids or arrests.

Last month, a Singaporean man was arrested at Penang airport with 7,000 ecstasy pills strapped around his chest.

In and around Kuala Lumpur alone from May to July this year, police detained 1,007 people, aged between 17 and 45, after they were caught with ecstasy at entertainment outlets.

Police say discos and nightspots in the cities are the biggest culprits behind the surge in ecstasy, as the owners sell the pills or tolerate their sale by dealers to attract more patrons.

Ecstasy gives users a euphoric rush of energy and allows them to dance for hours. It also raises body temperature, causing users to get thirsty and buy more drinks.

Doctors warn that long term use of ecstasy weakens the heart, brain and kidneys, while local dailies recently reported a mother slashing her child to death while under an ecstasy-induced hallucination.

Public awareness of ecstasy and its dangers remain fairly low in Malaysia, where many people think of drug takers as AIDS-ridden outcasts shooting up heroin and smoking cannabis in a dirty alley.

“Social workers I talked to told me ecstasy users insist they were using ‘soft’ drugs, not ‘hard’ drugs like heroin or cannabis,” said Ong, who is also youth chief of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the country’s biggest Chinese-based political party.

The MCA started the anti-ecstasy drive last month after its leaders were aghast to learn that statistics showed 90 per cent of ecstasy users were Chinese, who name the drug “shake-head pills.”

Social workers said this is because Chinese youths have higher incomes to afford the pills, while more Chinese also go to discos compared with the more conservative Moslem Malay majority.

Alarmed at the prospect of its younger generation being destroyed by the drug, the Chinese community, who form a third of Malaysia’s 23 million people, has vowed to fight ecstasy, which some have described as the newest scourge, after opium, to threaten the Chinese.

The MCA will officially launch its nationwide anti-ecstasy campaign on August 21, in cooperation with police and the government.

MCA leaders say they are already getting death threats from ecstacy pushers, who are believed linked to Chinese gangs or triads.

Ong urged tougher action against nightspots found selling ecstasy, saying he was “disturbed” at how easily some discos, which had been raided for ecstasy, soon reopened for business.

He also suggested authorities build more community centres and sports facilities, like basketball courts, so that youths could spend their free time there, instead of going to discos.

The government is setting up a committee to review and tighten laws on ecstasy and other psychotropic drugs such as “ice” or “shabu.”

Under current laws, anyone found with a minimum 50 grammes of ecstasy is deemed a drug trafficker and given the mandatory death sentence by hanging. Those whose urine show traces of ecstasy can be jailed up to two years.

The committee will study proposals such as increasing jail terms for offenders, rehabilitation for ecstasy users, and seizing property of disco owners found selling ecstasy.