Brave activists lead fight for reform in Malaysia after death sentence

International News

Calls for Malaysia to become the first country in Asia to legalise medical cannabis are growing after outrage was sparked when a young man selling cannabis oil to the ill was given a death sentence.

Thankfully the Malaysian government has since announced that the death penalty is shortly to be abolished, but 29-year-old Muhammad Lukman, sentenced at the end of August, still faces decades or even life in prison – a death sentence in its own right.

Lukman’s lawyers presented him as a kind-hearted and pious Muslim who would give away oil to patients who could not afford it. He advertised his products on a Facebook page (from which the picture above is from) called HealTHCare.

A petition gathered tens of thousands of signatures and high-profile politicians, including Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said the case should be reviewed. Nurul Izzah Anwar, an MP with the governing coalition, called the case a “miscarriage of justice”.

In late September it was reported that the cabinet had discussed the medical benefits of cannabis, and one minister declared that he was fully behind it.

Lukman’s case is not an aberration. Mohammed Zaireen bin Zainal, the founder of the Malaysian Marijuana Education Movement, is also on death row and awaiting a final appeal. A 58-year-old ex-military captain known as “Dr Ganja”, who treated himself and others with cannabis oil, is awaiting trial.

And they aren’t alone. Brave 41-year-old activist Yuki, who is leading the reform movement, told the BBC she had been arrested repeatedly but would stop at nothing and keep fighting. She obtained cannabis oil from Lukman and found that it helped tremendously in treating chronic, crippling pain from hypokalaemia, ie low blood potassium, having been on opiates.

“I had two growing kids at that time, one was nine years old, the other was 11. The two of them needed my attention but I could not give it to them because I was so sick.

“All the pain was gone so finally I could sleep, I slept like a baby,” she said, adding that her appetite returned, too. This was in the early 2000s when public discussion about medical cannabis use was non-existent in a country with some of the world’s harshest drug laws.

“It’s either cannabis or die,” she says. “If you are desperate, you are sick, you will do anything. We go online, we search about it, we find out about it. The government doesn’t want to give it to us but we will still find it.”

Samantha Chong, Dr Ganja’s lawyer, said that as a former prosecutor, she has seen first-hand that the draconian laws are not working. “I kept on seeing the same accused person coming for drug offences. [We would] put them in jail or give them a fine but they would keep coming back.”

Malaysians like her who advocate drug policy reform feel that international momentum is on their side, with Canada and South Africa recently legalising the drug completely. In the region, India and Thailand have both signalled that they could liberalise laws around medical marijuana products.

The BBC says it has seen documents that show both Prime Minister Mahathir and Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad have been in contact with the organisers of a privately-funded project involving Malaysian and Indian researchers looking at the potential for medical cannabis to treat depression. And Nurul Izzah Anwar, the MP, says she has begun drafting a bill to present in parliament.

How long it takes for any major legal reforms to emerge in a country that is even more conservative than the UK remains to be seen. Law Minister Liew Vui Keong insisted that the government had “not come to any conclusion with regard to the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes” but added that he would be willing to review the evidence available.

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