Malaysia Ends Mandatory Death Penalty for Nonviolent Drug Crimes

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Malaysia’s cabinet agreed on Friday to end mandatory death penalty sentences for 12 different kind of “crimes” including those involving non-violent drug offenses. The move comes four years after the government imposed a stay on executions. The reason this is so significant is that most people on death row in Malaysia have been convicted on narcotics charges.

According to information provided by the government as of February of this year, 1,341 people were on the Malaysian death row—and 905 of those people were convicted of “drug trafficking.”

Human Rights advocates in the region are cautiously optimistic. However according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, there should be no celebrating until this is codified in legislation. “The Malaysian government loves to float trial balloons about human rights initiatives because it knows the international community has a short attention span.”

Amnesty International called the government’s decision a “welcome step in the right direction.”

According to the most recent reports, the government expects to introduce the bill in Parliament in October and have it go into effect no later than January 2023.

The move is even more significant given the trends on capital punishment in the region. Singapore, Myanmar, and Vietnam are, in stark contrast, increasing the use of the death penalty.

Cannabis Appears to be the Driving Force of Reform

What makes this sudden prioritization of changing a major piece of policy even more interesting is that the Malaysian government may have decided to change its stance on mandatory sentencing, beyond legal cases, because of its recent and growing interest in medical cannabis.

Medical cannabis reform was discussed by the Malaysian cabinet in April this year during a meeting which the country’s Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob also attended. Subsequently the government issued a written statement that said “More than 40 countries have legalised consumption of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The caucus believes that Malaysia has the space and a huge opportunity in this industry for medicinal and research purposes which could deliver a lot of benefits for the country.”

As of now, a mandatory capital punishment sentence is imposed on those caught with more than 200 grams of cannabis. Lesser offenses are punished by up to a life sentence in prison.

The most recent discussion at a cabinet level about legalization of at least medical use also came on the heels of charges of drug cultivation and trafficking being made against a popular local singer named Yasin Sulaiman who performs Islamic devotional songs.

Currently no legal cannabis is grown in the country. As of last November, the government began allowing the import of medical cannabis of pharmaceutical quality specifically for medical purposes.

It is also highly likely that the change in policy has been prompted by an enthusiastic embrace of the plant in next door Thailand which has recently moved forward not only with cannabis reform but just announced a giveaway of a million cannabis plants.

History of Cannabis in Malaysia

Cannabis has been cultivated in the country for centuries. There is scant evidence that it was used as medicine; archaeological evidence has revealed that hemp has long been used for fabric production and for food. Arab traders were selling it in the country as early as the 8th century B.C.

The local cannabis trade entered its last golden age in the late 19th century when the British East India Company began trading it across the region. During the last century, the Vietnam War and Western backpackers also fuelled the nascent market.

The War on Drugs is indeed coming to an end, globally. What makes this development even more exciting is that cannabis reform is now driving a much larger revision of government policy in every part of the world.

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