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Malaysia Ends Mandatory Death Penalty for Nonviolent Drug Crimes

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. This is four years since the government had rescinded its ban on executions. This is significant because most of the death row prisoners in Malaysia are convicted on drug 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 from the region remain cautiously optimistic. Phil Robertson (deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch), says that there shouldn’t be any celebrations until the legislation is in place. “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.”

The government is expected to present the bill to Parliament in October, and it will be in effect by January 2023.

Given the recent trends in capital punishment, this move is all the more important. In stark contrast to Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar are increasing death penalty use.

The Driving Force for Reform: Cannabis

This sudden prioritization to alter a large piece of policy is even more fascinating because the Malaysian government might have changed its position on mandatory sentencing beyond legal cases due to its growing interest in medical marijuana.

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.”

Anyone found with over 200 grams of marijuana is now subject to mandatory capital punishment. For lesser offenses, you can be sentenced to life imprisonment.

A cabinet meeting was held to discuss legalization at minimum medical use. This occurred on the heels drug trafficking and cultivation charges being levelled against Yasin Sulaiman, a local singer who sings Islamic devotional music.

The country currently does not allow the cultivation of legal marijuana. Since November 2011, the government allows the import of cannabis pharmaceutical grade specifically for medical uses.

The possibility that policy changes were triggered by a passionate embrace of the cannabis plant in Thailand, which recently announced the giveaway of one million cannabis plants.

Malaysia’s history with cannabis

The cultivation of cannabis in this country dates back centuries. Although there is no evidence to suggest that cannabis was ever used medicinally, archaeological evidence shows that hemp has been long used in fabric production as well as for food. It was being sold in Egypt by Arab traders as far back as 8ThCentury B.C.

Late 19th-century saw the end of the golden age for local cannabis traders.ThIt was in this century that the British East India Company first began to trade it throughout the region. In the past century, it was also helped by Western backpackers as well as the Vietnam War.

The global War on Drugs may be coming to an abrupt halt. This is because cannabis reform has driven a more radical revision in government policies around the globe.