Following the arrest of a young couple for possession of cannabis cookies and the news that they will be investigated under Section 39(b) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, which is punishable with death by hanging, lawmakers are questioning when much-discussed changes to drug laws will materialise.
“The All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) on reforms of prison and detention centres is still awaiting further details and the actual wording of the new Drug and Substance Abuse Act 2020 - which has been touted by Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin - to replace the Drug Dependents (Treatment & Rehab) Act 1983.
“This gives us cause to hope for easing recourse and access to drug treatment and rehabilitation instead of extreme punitive measures, which has only harmed and worsened drug abuse in this country,” Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar (above) told Malaysiakini.
Calls for reform to drug laws and punishment have long been voiced by many quarters, including politicians and NGOs, urging the government to take action.
“I am reminded of the late Liew Vui Keong’s efforts at spearheading reforms of the criminal justice system - and to abolish the mandatory death penalty which has clearly victimised mainly lower-income minor offenders or drug mules, rather than drug trafficking kingpins.
“I hope that such reforms can be revisited through the two technical committees announced by the home minister - under the purview of the Law Enforcement Committee,” Nurul Izzah added.
Former health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad also questioned whether any progress had been made on the issue of decriminalisation of small quantities of drugs as part of the government’s efforts to treat drug use as an illness and not a crime.
“We still hold to that view for decriminalisation on issues of those found in possession, not those who are trafficking to make money.
“Drug addiction is a disease and the patients are in need of care and therapy,” he told Malaysiakini.
On June 27, 2019, when he helmed the Health Ministry under the Pakatan Harapan administration, Dzulkefly announced the government's plan to work towards removing criminal penalties for the personal possession and use of drugs as well as treat drug use and addiction as a complex chronic relapsing medical condition rather than a crime.
It should be noted that the couple nabbed this month were detained with substantial amounts of cannabis, meaning that they would not have qualified under any personal use exemption as they had - 156 cookie jars at 43.275kg, 94 cakes at 9.625kg, 7.82kg of cannabis dough, and 31kg of cannabis liquid.
More medical marijuana research
Dzulkefly also called for more research into the issue of medical marijuana use.
“Research should continue and be taken to fruition. If successful, manufactured products here or overseas can go through the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency process the same as any other pharmaceutical drug,” he said.
This issue was in the news when Muhammad Lukman Mohamad was sentenced to death on Aug 30, 2018, under the Dangerous Drugs Act for possession of 3.1 litres of cannabis oil, 279g of compressed cannabis and 1.4kg of substances containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Earlier this year on Feb 17, a three-member Federal Court bench led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat allowed his appeal to set aside his conviction on two counts of drug trafficking.
However, despite the various steps forward on the issue, as with many Harapan policy announcements on the matter, the laws were never changed.
As of February 2019, 1,281 individuals were reported to be on death row in the country, with 73 percent having been convicted of drug trafficking under Section 39(b).
Following the latest arrest, #KajiBukanKeji campaigners and Malaysia Society of Awareness (Masa) expressed their disappointment that the courts are still mandated to issue heavy-handed punishments given to those found guilty of drug-related charges.
There is a clear need for drug policy reform and greater discretion in sentencing, particularly when punishments as heavy and irreversible as the death penalty are involved, they said.
They cited the United Nations’ removal of cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs - where it was listed alongside specific deadly, addictive opioids.
The potential medical uses (and downsides) of cannabis and its derivatives remain an active area of research and one that is likely to become more active as more countries legalise marijuana for various purposes including medical ones.