In a victory for international advocates of both cannabis and basic human rights, the government of Malaysia has announced a reprieve in the case of a medical marijuana provider who was sentenced to be hanged. This news is especially welcome, as it comes as many Southeast Asian nations are moving in the opposite direction — toward intolerant “drug war” policies and the aggressive use of the death penalty for drug offenses.
But the change to Malaysia’s penal code hasn’t happened yet, and it still remains unclear if it will come in time to save the life of the celebrated defendant.
Malaysia’s cabinet chief Liew Vui Keong announced on Oct. 10 that his government will seek to abolish the death penalty in the next session of the country’s parliament, which opens this week. This comes two weeks after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed (at 92, the oldest ruler of any nation on earth) called upon his cabinet to amend the death penalty statutes — in direct response to the global outcry over the death sentence delivered to cannabis oil producer Muhammad Lukman.
Hopefully, Lukman’s execution will be placed on hold while the legislative change is pending. Nurul Izzah Anwar, a parliamentarian from Mahathir’s ruling coalition, said she would write a letter to the attorney general’s office asking for the sentence to be put aside.
“From the reports, it looks to be a miscarriage of justice,” she said, according to Channel News Asia.
The announcement was applauded by Amnesty International, whose secretary general Kumi Naidoo said, “Today’s announcement is a major step forward for all those who have campaigned for an end to the death penalty in Malaysia. Malaysia must now join the 106 countries who have turned their backs for good on the ultimate cruel, inhumane, degrading punishment — the world is watching.”
Death Sentence for Compassionate Care
Muhammad Lukman was convicted and sentenced to death by a court in the city of Shah Alam on Aug. 30. He was charged under Malaysia’s unforgiving 1952 Dangerous Drug Act for possession 3.01 liters (about 100 fluid ounces) of cannabis oil and 279 grams (about 10 ounces) of compressed cannabis. As local media reported, he had been arrested at his residence in December 2015 along with his wife, who was then six months pregnant.
Lukman’s attorney argued that he was not involved in any criminal enterprise, but was collaborating with advocacy organizations such as the Gerakan Edukasi Ganja Malaysia (Malaysia Ganja Education Movement) to provide cannabis oil to the ailing. For those who were too poor to pay, it was provided for free — demonstrating that Lukman’s own operation, dubbed HealTHCare, was not a profit-making entity.
Several of Lukman’s hundreds of patients — including his mother — testified in court on his behalf. So did Professor Mohammad Aris Mohd Moklas, a neuroscience researcher from University Putra Malaysia, who presented his recent paper on cannabis and brain function, “Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol Induce Neurogenesis and Improve Cognitive Performance of Male Sprague Dawley Rats.”
Lukman’s international supporters launched an online petition at Change.org demanding his freedom. It has so far been signed by nearly 70,000 people.
But there are other such cases pending. Amiruddin Nadarajan Abdullah is on trial in the city of Petaling Jaya for providing cannabis oil to as many as 800 patients, Free Malaysia Today reported in January. Again, many of his patients, including young children and grandparents, came to court in support of Abdullah, known affectionately as Dr. Ganja. If convicted, Abdullah could also face the gallows — unless the law is changed.
There are currently some 1,200 inmates on death row in Malaysia. Amnesty International is especially demanding clemency for death row inmate Hoo Yew Wah, who was arrested with a small amount of methamphetamine when he was 20 years old.
Reversing the Regional Trend: South Asia & Cannabis
What would make the Malaysian repeal of the death penalty particularly significant is that it could begin to reverse the regional trend is currently heading in a more draconian direction. Southeast Asia has one of the world’s highest execution rates. In nations such as Singapore and Indonesia, even minor drug offenses can result in a death penalty.
A 2011 report by the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, “When Justice Fails: Thousands Executed in Asia After Unfair Trials,” found that the legal systems in the region often fail to meet international standards, with mandatory death sentences imposed on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. A presumption of guilt and denial of the right to counsel are other factors that contribute to unjust trials and convictions.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s draconian “drug war” has resulted in perhaps 20,000 extrajudicial killings by police and paramilitary forces since he took office two years ago. And his grim example is being emulated by other leaders across South and Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka has announced that it will start hanging drug convicts, with leaders explicitly hoping to “replicate the success” of Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in June condemned the government of Bangladesh for the killing of suspected drug offenders by security forces. The High Commissioner was responding to reports that 130 people had been killed in three weeks and thousands arrested after the government proclaimed a “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal drugs.
Medical Marijuana for Malaysia?
There is even some reason to believe that Malaysia could go beyond mere repeal of the death penalty and actually become the first Southeast Asian nation to legalize medical marijuana. Amid the cabinet meetings to discuss abolishing capital punishment, Natural Resources Minister Xavier Jayakumar told reporters that the idea had been “very briefly” discussed.
“It’s already been done in certain countries, and in certain states in America,” Xavier said. “If it’s going to be used for medicinal purposes, it can be used. Not for social purposes, for medicinal purposes — yes, it should be allowed to be used.”
While emphasizing that the Health Ministry would have the final word, Xavier said: “My own personal view is that if it’s got medicinal value, then it can be a controlled item that can be used by Ministry of Health for prescription purposes.”
As Bloomberg notes, the only other country in the region to have broached this idea is Thailand, where the Government Pharmaceutical Organization, a unit of its Ministry of Public Health, is trying to persuade the ruling military regime to approve studying cannabis with an eye toward permitting medical use.
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