There is a burning issue that is sparking a global revolution. This battle is not being fought with guns and bombs, but with plants and pens. The fight for medical marijuana legalization has ignited and is being passed from country to country like a well rolled joint at a Jamaican beach party.
The pot has been passed to South East Asia, a notoriously conservative hard-line region for drug policy. But while countries like the US, Canada, Israel, and the UK among many others, have reformed their marijuana laws to either legalize the medical, and in some cases recreational use of marijuana, or at the very least decriminalize it, some countries in South East Asia have doubled down on hard-line policies on drugs in general and cannabis by extension.
Marijuana is illegal in all 10 South East Asian nations. But there are varying degrees of penalties and levels of enforcement. These can range from a loosely enforced slap-on-the-wrist to a tightly tied noose-around-the-neck. In South East Asia, marijuana possession may mean a death sentence, albeit extra-judicially.
Medical Marijuana in the Philippines
Marijuana has been illegal in the Philippines since 1972. Previous to the abolishment of capital punishment in 2006, possession of 500 grams or more of marijuana meant execution. Now amidst the spate of killings of drug users and dealers by police, the death penalty seems back in full effect. Marijuana users have been caught up in the country’s ongoing war on drugs with deadly consequence.
But there is growing demand for medical marijuana reform in the Philippines. This comes in the manner of House Bill No. 180, or the proposed Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act. The bill seeks to allow the use of medical marijuana under prescription in the Philippines. But in the midst of the government’s violent crackdown on drugs, the line between a puff and a pass is drawn along a precarious slope.
Medical Cannabis in Indonesia
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, shares similar sentiment with its Catholic neighbor on the issue of drugs. In 2002, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri vehemently announced Indonesia’s intent to implement a fierce war on drugs. She called for the execution of all drug dealers. And Indonesia’s next two presidents, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the current Joko Widodo, continued this hard-line stance.
Marijuana is considered a class-1 drug in Indonesia and possession of at least 1 kilogram means execution by firing squad. It was initially banned in 1927 during the Dutch colonial period. There are currently no proposed changes to the law regarding medical marijuana. In contrast, the Netherlands have since become one of the world’s most compassionate cannabis countries where marijuana can be purchased openly at “coffee shops.”
Medical Marijuana in Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore
Malaysia and Brunei, ASEAN’s other two Muslim nations, also execute drug offenders. But they are a bit more economical with regards to capital punishment. They deal with drug offenders the old-fashioned way; they hang them. Malaysian law prescribes a mandatory death sentence for those caught in possession of at least 200 grams of cannabis. In Brunei, 500 grams will have you swinging from the gallows.
In ethnically and religiously diverse Singapore, 70% of executions are drug-related. Possession of 500 grams or more of marijuana will get you a date with the hangman. Marijuana was banned in Malaysia and Singapore in 1870 during the British colonial period. There are no immediate plans to reform existing laws to allow the use of medical marijuana.
However, South East Asia’s mainland Buddhist countries have traditionally taken a more laid-back approach to marijuana. This is in stark contrast to the hard-line tactics of the Muslim and Catholic island nations.
Medical Cannabis in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos
In Myanmar, marijuana is currently illegal but laws against the sale and possession of cannabis are reportedly loosely enforced. This is most likely due to marijuana’s traditional acceptance in Burmese Buddhist society.
There is also loose enforcement in Cambodia, another predominantly Buddhist country where cannabis has been traditionally grown and used medicinally, recreationally, and as an ingredient in food. Although it is illegal, authorities do not harass marijuana users and some businesses sell cannabis products openly.
In Vietnam, marijuana is sold in some bars and restaurants. Police usually turn a blind eye to cannabis. They instead focus their attention on heroin, methamphetamines, and other hard drugs they consider far more dangerous.
And in Laos, despite its illegal status, marijuana is widely available, especially in tourist-friendly areas. Some bars and restaurants even feature happy menus where customers can choose from a variety of marijuana-infused foods as well as those containing psychedelic mushrooms.
But in the neighbouring Buddhist Kingdom of Thailand, things have been drastically different, historically speaking.
Medical Marijuana in Thailand
Perhaps no country in the world symbolized the brutal war on drugs more than Thailand. In 2003, under the presidency of Thaksin Shinawatra, a violent crackdown was launched by the government which saw thousands of people killed, many extra-judicially.
Thailand has one of the highest incarceration rates and prison populations in the world. It has 40% of South East Asia’s prisoners despite having only 10% of its population, and almost 70% of prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges. These are mostly minor drug offences that carry mandatory sentences.
But in 2016, in what was considered a shocking announcement, Thailand’s then Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya publicly admitted that the country’s war on drugs had failed. In a sobering admission, the army general and senior member of the ruling military junta said, “the world has lost the war on drugs, not only Thailand.” He sighted overcrowded prisons, rising addiction rates, broken families, and harsh draconian penalties as indicators that a new approach had to be immediately taken.
Among his many calls for reform, was the removal of marijuana from the narcotic drugs list and its reclassification as a medicinal herb, thereby decriminalizing it and legalizing its medicinal use. The leading cause of death in Thailand is cancer and advocacy groups have been demanding access to medical marijuana as an alternative to traditional often debilitating cancer treatments. The country, once the symbol for a brutal hard-line policy on drugs, seems to be steadfastly pursuing a progressive approach to modernizing their drug laws.
Medical Marijuana reform in South East Asia
With the legalization of medical marijuana in Thailand forecasted to be only a few months away, and recreational legalization anticipated to follow, Thailand is giving high hopes to cannabis advocacy groups in the region who hope the same reform policies can be examined and implemented in the remaining hard-line nations. Thailand was once the extreme example of the brutal war on drugs and its subsequent failure. It is now poised to be the first country in South East Asia to legalize medical marijuana.
The war on drugs has cost many lives, both in the South East Asian region and around the world. These lives were lost not only because of addiction and murder, but also because they were denied access to medicine. Denying a suffering child or terminally ill patient the right to explore medical alternatives especially when they have exhausted all other options is cruel and unreasonable.
In the end, the decision to legalize medical marijuana is not for the lawmakers and politicians to make. That right belongs to the families of children who suffer from life-threatening seizures who never had the chance to enjoy the joys of childhood. That right belongs to the people dying of cancer hoping for a cure. Or those suffering from devastating diseases seeking comfort from debilitating pain. Medical marijuana belongs to those who need it most.
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