As recently as 2018, Muhammad Lukman was sentenced to death by hanging after being convicted of possessing and distributing cannabis oil to patients. The 29-year-old father’s crime was providing free cannabis oil to patients seeking alternative medicine. In greener pastures, medicinal cannabis is celebrated as a means of treating ailments such as psychiatric disorders and depression. What led us to this situation?
How we got here.
Cannabis is not a new phenomenon in Malaysia, it has been cultivated in Malaysia for centuries. Following the British acquisition of Dutch Malacca in 1826, the British were raising taxes from the production of bhang, a food made from cannabis leaves. The trading of cannabis by the British East India Company marked the last golden age of the local cannabis trade in the late 19th century.
Our country has always taken a firm stance against drugs. The death penalty for drug trafficking was made mandatory in 1983 as a reaction to a burgeoning drug trade in the region. The following decade saw 35 people convicted of drug trafficking. Of the 1341 prisoners on death row, 905 of them (67%) are in for drug trafficking. Malaysia’s Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 puts a ban on all drug trafficking, lumping cannabis in with ‘hard drugs’ such as heroin and cocaine. In the war on drugs, cannabis was caught in the crossfire.
However, the message was clear:
Malaysia takes drugs seriously and has a zero-tolerance policy.
What we are doing about it.
Recent times have shown progress with several political figures arguing for the use of medicinal cannabis. In February of 2021, Muhammad Lukman was freed after a Federal Court bench allowed his appeal to set aside his conviction and got away with 10 strokes of the cane. During a debate session for the 12th Malaysia plan, then MP Syed Saddiq proposed a review of medical marijuana citing it as an alternative medical treatment for mental health issues. He also notes the expected growth of the industry to over RM400 billion in the coming years.
The current Minister of Health Khairy Jamaluddin visited Thailand in August to assess the potential medical use and legal framework surrounding cannabis. Thailand is the first Southeast Asian country to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Khairy Jamaluddin in Thailand. Image via Linda Khoo/@bernamadotcom (Twitter)
‘The visit also opens international collaboration opportunities for the private and research entities undertaking clinical studies on cannabis and ketum, as they develop medical innovations that will further improve the quality of healthcare in Malaysia’. – Khairy Jamaluddin
In September 2022, Khairy also mentioned that the ministry is looking into using holistic approaches as methods to deal with drug offenders. Said approach would focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. He is also confident that a decision on medicinal cannabis will be made by the end of the year with the policy likely being implemented next year.
Why stop there?
Although political consideration has only been given to medicinal use, an inevitable topic when discussing cannabis is recreational use. In Thailand, cannabis is only permitted in a medicinal context with permission from a doctor. A stroll down the streets of Bangkok tells a different story. The sale of cannabis is rampant with little enforcement of the law. Despite this, the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul still denies the legality of recreational cannabis.
Customers queued up to buy cannabis from a truck on Khaosan Road
“Every morning, hawkers stack bricks of weed and hashish on foldable metal tables. Glass jars akin to a 1930s candy shop overflow with gummies laced with THC, the chemical that gives cannabis its trademark ‘high’. Even 7-eleven sells cannabis-infused drinks and beauty products, while restaurants offer soups, curries, and pizzas spiked with ganja leaves. Meanwhile, police stand idly by or even line up to pick up a baggie of their own.” – TIME 2022
Clearly, the implementation of cannabis legalisation must be carefully considered if the goal is strictly medicinal and not recreational. Having said that, is the latter really all that bad? The sale of alcohol and cigarettes is allowed and there is evidence of the detrimental effects of both to our health and society.
According to a UK study by The Lancet, alcohol is even worse than heroin and crack cocaine in terms of its harm to others. Driving under the influence of alcohol increases the odds of getting into an accident by 2200% whereas cannabis increases it by only 83%. Cigarettes on the other hand exponentially increase the odds of lung disease but also risks others around you through second-hand smoking. If aliens came, there would definitely be confusion on our choice of banned substances.
Crossing the legal line.
Image via CosmicSkeptic
There is also the problem of crossing the ‘legal line’. Since cannabis is illegal, it requires breaking the law to acquire it, usually through a drug dealer. Since this line is already crossed, it makes it easier both psychologically and literally to access ‘hard drugs’ such as heroin and cocaine. You have already done something illegal, so why not delve deeper? The drug dealer is also likely to recommend other products. If cannabis was a legal substance, the gateway to worse substances closes and regulations can ensure a safe product. In the Netherlands, where all cannabis is regulated by the state and all cannabis shops undergo frequent inspection. There is no ability for hard drug dealer to sell fatal cocaine or heroin.
This distinction between marijuana and other drugs like heroin and cocaine is crucial. In the UK, heroin and cocaine are a Class A substance while marijuana is a Class B substance. This is done because its recognised that their effects are disproportionately different from one another. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the use of cocaine in of itself will result in severe organ damage. It reduces blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, which can lead to tears and ulcerations, and causes increased risk of strokes. It has been reported to cause intracerebral haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) as well as inflammation of the heart muscle with potential for aortic ruptures.
Conversely, marijuana’s effects are visibly much milder, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention report that marijuana can lead to increased blood pressure which does increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and other vascular diseases but no more than in the same way smoking has been analysed to cause similar effects.
Medicinal marijuana is mostly used to reduce pain and give calm and relaxation to patients. While both cocaine and marijuana can give relief to pain and enable a state of ecstasy, the difference is in the toll to the body. That being that as shown above, the toll of marijuana against hard drugs is significantly milder.
There is also a benefit in the quality of marijuana that can be consumed when it is legalised and its production can be inspected. Street drugs are typically impure and can contain harmful substances. Who is to know what additives, and unhygienic practices are used by street dealers to produce their product. This can range from unsanitary harvesting and production all the way to lacing marijuana with fatal additives like PCP.
On top of that, the economic benefits of cannabis legalisation cannot be understated. Glancing over the fence, the Thai cannabis market is projected to reach over RM5 billion after a few years. This would be a well needed injection into our economy. The taxation of cannabis sales can be channelled towards drug rehabilitation efforts and awareness campaigns.
The future of cannabis in Malaysia
Looking ahead, medicinal cannabis in Malaysia seems to be inevitable. The benefits to society are manifold ranging from health and wellness to economic stimulation. However, it remains to be seen whether implementation policies are tight knit enough to avoid a Thai situation. On the flip side, a Thai situation may not be the worst scenario.
A coffeeshop in Amsterdam offering cannabis to its patrons. Image via shutterstock
It is useful to look towards countries that have integrated recreational use of ‘soft drugs’ such as the Netherlands. There, cannabis is widely available in coffee shops bringing in millions of tourists a year. Due to decades of experience, checks and balances have been implemented to ensure control over the substance. For example, cannabis can only be sold in certain local ‘coffeeshops’ and the police still have the right to confiscate for possession over 5 grams.
Realistically, recreational cannabis would be a harder sell to our generally conservative nation. For the time being, it is pragmatic to take one step at a time and ensure medicinal cannabis is implemented in a safe and organised way.