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by Rizal Hamdan 15th December 2020


On the 4th of December, the United States House of Representatives approved a bill on decriminalising marijuana.

The landmark legislation would ultimately lead to the removal of non-violent marijuana-related convictions.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CDN) removed marijuana from the strictest control schedule listing, in recognising its medical and therapeutic benefits.

In my opinion, it was a watershed moment for decades-old educational advocacy by various organisations and individuals across the globe on the substance's medical benefits.

Historically, the prohibition on marijuana was heavy laden with a racist narrative. In the United States, during an official hearing on the marijuana law in the 1930s, claims were made by the anti marijuana group about the substance's ability to cause Mexican men to behave disruptively and solicit sex from white women.

Eventually, it became the foundation for the Marijuana Tax Act 1937 that wanted to regulate the use of the substance in the country. It was not until Richard Nixon's presidency that marijuana was officially outlawed as the Controlled Substance Act 1971 was passed by Congress.

Since then, marijuana use was not only restricted, but was also criminalised and millions were thrown into prison.

The new approach of the US policy on harm reduction may soon cause a snowball effect across the world. Many countries are likely to jump on the bandwagon and review their policies on drugs, as a response to the decriminalisation and reclassification of marijuana by the US and the United Nations.

Malaysia is known for having the world's toughest drug laws. Those caught possessing or consuming marijuana of up to 50g are sentenced to five years' imprisonment, lashes or fines up to RM20,000.

Possession of more than 200g is deemed to be drug trafficking by the Dangerous Drugs Act and punishable by death.

The definition of drug trafficking itself is problematic and ambiguous. In most cases, "drug mules" were convicted rather than the traffickers, who reap the benefits of the narco-economic system.

The nature of drug laws in Malaysia is more punitive than rehabilitative. In 2016, the official capacity of the prison system was 45,650 convicts.

However, the occupancy had reached 55,490 persons. In 2017, the number had increased to 59,600 convicts, with 56 per cent being non-violent and minor drug offenders (marijuana related cases).

As a result of overpopulated prisons, other issues such as dilapidated facilities and the welfare of the convicts began to simmer.

When the pandemic hit the nation, that overpopulation produced the Tembok cluster, which brewed behind the walls of Alor Star Prison and reported a total of 224 cases.

The public might be confused between the notions of decriminalisation and legalisation.

Decriminalisation means that the possession of small amounts of marijuana will trigger minimum or no criminal penalties, although fines and citations may still be levied. Ultimately, marijuana is not entirely about recreational drugs.

There is also medical marijuana, a product made through the extraction of cannabidiol (CBD) from cannabis plants.

CBD can be used for pain control and as a treatment for depression. Medically, it is known that marijuana consumption appears to ease multiple ailments such as nerve pain and nausea. Nonetheless, the use of marijuana as a remedy requires a doctor's prescription.

The Asian Cannabis Report published by the Prohibition Partners estimates that Asia's medical marijuana market will be worth more than US$5.8 billion. Thailand alone is projected to generate US$661 million by 2024.

Without the government's regulation and legalisation, this industry remains in the hands of the outlaw drug cartel and billions of dollars worth of tax is lost.

Although legalisation is far beyond reach in Malaysia, for the time being, the government must review the national drug policy and laws, and eventually take a step towards the decriminalisation of marijuana.

At the end of the day, educative and rehabilitative policies are better than punitive ones.

This article was originally published in The New Straits Times on the 14th of December 2020.

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