By Zaid Moosa
In today’s article, I will be focusing on one of the most draconian cannabis laws in the world, that of Malaysia. I undertook an interview with one of our NORML UK volunteers who was born and grew up in Malaysia and offered me an insight into the effects the laws have on cannabis smokers there. Before moving onto the interview, I would like to share a little of what I found about the laws and some of the findings from a report into public opinions on the death penalty published by the Death Penalty Project and written by an Oxford professor named Roger Hood.
Let me begin with the law. The death penalty in Malaysia is mandatory if a person is convicted of drug trafficking (the following figures come directly from the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 which can be found online). For cannabis, this requires you to be caught with more than 200 grammes on you (the quantities depend on the drug, so for heroin the corresponding amount is 15 grammes or more). If caught and convicted of this then the penalty is mandatory execution. This means that the judge has absolutely no say in the matter and cannot consider any mitigating circumstances and such a law is internationally considered as inhumane as it sounds. Mandatory death sentences are rejected by almost all modern judicial institutions as going against international human rights. In neighbouring Singapore, the same law was reformed to introduce judicial discretion after a landmark case in 2012 in which a Malaysian man named Yong Vui Kong was sentenced to death for trafficking. After a widespread popular outcry, judicial discretion was introduced and the judge gave him 15 years and 15 strokes of the cane; hardly a silver lining but a step in the right direction.
The current narcotics laws are based on the 1912 Hague Convention and the 1925 and 1931 Geneva Conventions, imposed upon the world primarily by the USA and UK and the 1952 law comes from a period when Malaysia was still under British colonial control. As we all too often see, oppressive laws remain as the hangover from colonialism and as the colonial power moves forward and reform its own systems, the original colonised people continue to suffer from laws which they never desired in the first place. When we speak about the people who are suffering, we do of course mean the poorest strata of society who are driven into drug trafficking (mainly as mules) in order to pay for the necessities of life which the state itself denies them. Trapped in a circle of poverty and illegal activity, an unlucky few must pay the ultimate price and become the deterrent poster boys, a cruel example for those “evil-doers” considering breaking the law and upsetting social harmony.
Between 1960 and 2011 official statistics show that 441 people were hanged for drug trafficking, murder and discharge of a firearm. In 2012 there were 648 (of a total of 924) people on death row for drug trafficking offences and the last execution came in 2009 when two men were hanged. Although the executions are rarely carried out now, hundreds still live with the noose hanging over their heads. As we saw in Singapore and as we know from most movements for political reform, change must come from the bottom-up and be driven by the will of the people. This is contingent on the people supporting a particular move for change and this is where the report by the Death Penalty Project comes in. It is based on a survey by Ipsos Malaysia and seeks to identify public attitudes towards the death penalty (I have provided the link at the end of the article for any interested, particularly of you work in the field of Criminology or Psychology). I have picked a few statistics which focus on drug trafficking and cannabis only. This report was published by the Bar Council Malaysia which is one of the main supporters of reform to the Death Penalty (note that the association of Malaysian lawyers believe the law needs to be changed).
Firstly, only 8% of respondents said they were very concerned with the death penalty with 36% not interested at all. Around 56% admitted to be being poorly informed on the subject and only 7% knew that the last execution had taken place in 2010. This is telling for the level of public interest in the matter. Between 74 – 80% of respondents supported a mandatory or discretionary death sentence for drug trafficking depending on the drug in question but this figure changed substantially when respondents were presented with particular scenarios. It is no surprise to me that mitigating circumstances did alter people’s opinion, considering that we are actually from the same species, have evolved the ability to feel empathy and have all made some kind of mistake in our lives.
Subsequently, when presented with the case of a 21 year old woman who was caught trafficking 100 grammes of heroin, only 9% believed the death penalty was appropriate. With regards to cannabis, 34% supported a mandatory death penalty for trafficking. When given the scenario of a 25 year old man with a previous record of dealing, caught with 400 grammes of cannabis, only a third of that 34% chose the death penalty (most opting for life sentences instead). In the face of a real situation only around a fifth of respondents chose the death penalty while 78% had originally supported a mandatory or discretionary sentence for trafficking cannabis. These figures show that while interest in the subject of the death penalty may not be huge and many seem to support it in theory, when a human face is put onto it opinions change dramatically and the majority of people (who are not legally trained) would alter the sentence, opting for considerable jail sentences. If the general population are able to do so, why should it be that a judge cannot take similar considerations into account when handing down sentences.
And the result of this law? Are young people deterred from smoking cannabis? Clearly not as most people are unaware of the specific penalties and are clearly willing to risk them if they do. Does it improve the moral integrity of the country? Well it’s hard to see how persuading the populace that problems are best solved through killing will achieve this. Placing police officers in a position where they can extort citizens and encouraging said citizens to pay bribes in order to avoid punishment hardly aids in laying down the solid judicial foundation for a supposedly “modernising” country. Decriminalisation precedes legalisation. And an acknowledgement of basic human rights must be the driving force for a gradual decrease in the severity of global anti-cannabis laws. I have written about this law relating to legalisation of cannabis, but in truth the plant is irrelevant in this situation. This is really a matter of human rights and the removal of an abhorrent, unjust and indefensible law.
I apologise to those who have no interest in statistics and for the figures I have thrown around but it helps to put into context the struggle for reform in the country before we move onto the personal aspect with our interview. Kathryn is a volunteer for NORML who lives in the UK and this is what she had to say on the matter:
So first of all, how long did you live in Malaysia for?
My whole life until I was about 19, then I started travelling.
And how did you get introduced to cannabis?
Like how most teenagers get introduced to it – university mates. Because it was cool lol.
It definitely is. How easy was it to find Cannabis there?
Among university students, it’s like an ice breaker and it’s usually the kids that look like your stoner stereotypes. In my university (limkokwing) there’s a plaza where the kids would play loud rasta music. You’d just know.
How did other people/students generally react towards them/treat them?
Because of the death penalty and how reefer madness has made an impact in Malaysia, students are quite paranoid about having it and kids that are ‘straight edge’ usually just think it damages your brain and because of the death penalty it kills you, it’s silly really. Activism isn’t very big there. Because freedom of speech isn’t encouraged – you can get thrown in jail.
What experiences did you have with the police while in public places in the groups you mentioned?
First encounter with authorities regarding pot- sometime in 2008 when I was enrolled in art uni (limkokwing) there were undercover cops looking for people in possession or selling cannabis – my friends and I were caught smoking it in our friends car at their car park – my two male friends were arrested and put in jail for 3 weeks until we made bail which was about 3500ringgit (a lot for students in Malaysia, [they] had to pawn some of their belongings) – my friends were whipped while in there and we had about 5grams on us when we were caught.
Police stopped my mates car in cyberjaya (where limkokwing is in) and realised we had been smoking ‘ganja’ – he said he was going to have to arrest us and/or fine us but he said he would forget it if we had any money but as students we did not and were afraid to get arrested so he settled for our last bag of weed
In a country where the drug laws are so strict, there is also a lot of corruption and people usually can get away by bribing the police. Oh yeah and my friends had to bribe the cops so that they won’t have a criminal record.
What is the legal penalty for possession of that amount of cannabis?
Think it’s a 2000ringgit fine and possible 2years? Might have changed but doubt it has. But every case is different there. They change the law as they go.
And how much did you generally have to pay to bribe them?
Any amount from 20- a few hundred ringgit depending on how kind that particular cop was. It sounds silly but that’s how it works there. A lot of underage drivers there too – and they all get away by paying the cops.
So the majority of police seemed to be driven more by financial incentives than moral or even legal concerns?
Oh hell yeah. No cop in Malaysia has morals.
Do you remember if your friends told you precisely how many times they were whipped? I ask because it’s clearly stated in the law how many you should receive for each offence.
Nah they just seemed too traumatised at the time and one of them had dual citizenship. New Zealand and Malaysian. He left and never came back to Malaysia and I don’t intend to go back either, well I’m happy here with my family. Oh they never go by written law. Depends how much they hate/like you. I had an uncle who was in prison for about 7 years for being a heroin user. They clearly didn’t like his face so bribery was useless.
Were you aware of any official body you could complain to if you felt police had overstepped their powers or broken the law themselves in their treatment of you?
No I never felt like I had any rights – I hold a Malaysian passport but because I am not the majority race or religion, I do not get the same benefits (well no help at all really just felt like you were in it alone).
Did cannabis use seem to be more/less popular amongst certain ethnic groups or religions?
You know it’s frowned upon but the people known as the orang asli use it as medicine so do the other ethnic groups like the sarawakian and kadazan people and Hindus. Chinese just kept to themselves and Muslim were a mix really. But mainstream it seemed to cause brain damage and be the cause of crime and etc. But Malaysian teens are very engrossed by western culture and cannabis was seen as the symbol of unity. Only times I’ve hung out with so many races was when we were all smoking joints at a friend’s party.
So no special allowances were made for ethnic groups who had a historical or cultural tradition of using cannabis?
No, not that we know of.
I better move on to the death penalty now. What is your knowledge of the law with regards to the death penalty? When can it or must it be applied?
If you have 200grams or more it is presumed drug trafficking so death penalty by hanging.
How strict are judges in enforcing this penalty?
They’re not very educated about cannabis and Malaysia has had many foreign drug traffickers and they have had death penalty. It’s sick, so sickening.
Would you blame the judges or the legal system primarily for these sentences?
Malaysia is a follower I think and if the world were to change its views they might as well but I blame it on the legal system, it’s so corrupt and [there’s] no structure at all.
How many executions have there been in recent years for drug trafficking offences?
From my knowledge, at least a dozen in the past few years. But they are strict. If caught you will most likely get the death penalty.
What sort of public reaction do executions seem to receive?
Well news coverage but it’s always the drug trafficker that’s the bad person and they try to make it justifiable. Narrow minded people usually go ah, he/she deserved it for trying to sell or traffic drugs. People aren’t educated enough in Malaysia – not unless you searched for the info you wouldn’t know the truth about cannabis.
Do you feel as though the situation has improved in recent years in terms of leniency shown towards those convicted of these offences?
Hmm I read a couple of cases, that their death penalty has been set aside or lifted. So maybe. I haven’t been to Malaysia for almost two years, things might have changed but my mates that are there are still just as paranoid.
Would it surprise you to hear that the last time someone was executed for drug trafficking offences was two men in 2009? According to official statistics that is.
Hmm, well I guess so but there are people who are just waiting to be hanged. I know in 2012 two customs officers were sentenced to death for trafficking. They have sentenced quite a few people but they might have postponed it.
Yes, again according to official statistics there are were 648 people (of 924) on death row in 2012, which is obviously abhorrent.
Also a Nigerian student. Oh god, that’s horrible.
How would you realistically like the country to move forward in terms of its drug laws? Taking into account the status quo, public perceptions and domestic politics.
Take away the death penalty and probably get educated about the healing properties of cannabis – in Malaysia, there are people that are open minded and also alternative medicine is big there. So if people were educated about the healing properties of cannabis I’m sure they will change their views on it.
Do you believe such change would have to come from the citizens (bottom up) or from politicians (top down)?
Wow in Malaysia it’s really difficult to say. I think a lot of work needs to be done before any change will be made there. Too much corruption. And tobacco is the norm there. Cigs are cheap and colourful and attractive.
Do you know of any organisations similar to NORML who are working to achieve this change?
Not in Malaysia itself. There was this website where it looked like they were trying to educate and show people what the drug laws are like in Malaysia. They’re doing it from America. Like I said, I think freedom of speech is not really ‘free’ there.
Well there’s clearly a lot of scope for change in the country and hopefully successful campaigns in other countries could encourage Malaysians to push for changes to such oppressive laws. But to end on a lighter note, what can you tell us about your favourite/most popular Malaysian strains?
Yeah there’s a real chance for change here. Haha we usually get what is called thai manga. We don’t get proper bud there. It’s like shake and compressed into blocks. Over here, you get proper bud and I’ve learned so much about cannabis here. Also the change in myself is obvious, I feel healthier. In the time that I’ve smoked (now vape) cannabis here, I’ve also managed to quit smoking and drinking. And [it] also helped me stop taking Ritalin.
Do you mainly smoke for medicinal purposes or for pleasure? Or both.
I see it as both. Why can’t I enjoy the effects of MY medication which is cannabis? But yeah I vape it because I feel healthier for it, it helps my adhd (A LOT!) and I prefer it to drinking and popping pills.
Well it’s definitely the healthier way to go about it, although I’d shy away from comparing it to drinking and other drugs, we don’t want to encourage those pesky folk who lump “drugs” together with blanket bans. And I’m glad you’re in a place where it’s easier to enjoy it, although we clearly have a long way to go in the UK, let alone Malaysia.
Yeah don’t want them to twist and turn things. They have to understand it’s not cannabis that’s the problem just because it’s present along with the bad stuff it gets put together as one thing.
Thanks for talking to me about the topic, hopefully it will shed some light on the situation fellow smokers/vapers/humans face in different parts of the world.
Yeah all we can do is do our part and hope for progress. We will get there.
NORML UK would like to extend gratitude to Kathryn for taking part in this interview.