The haze around the marijuana issue


Let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing anyone says about the alleged benefits of legalising marijuana will change the government’s stance on the drug, at least for the next few years.

Our Deputy Home Minister confirmed this in no uncertain terms on Monday. “Is he kidding me?” an incredulous Nur Jazlan Mohamed asked reporters when asked for his opinion on the proposal by Youth Parliament member Muhamad Ridhwan Mohd Rosli to legalise the stuff.

Malaysian authorities have had a long history of coming down hard on those who use or traffic in marijuana. The country boasts one of the toughest punishments for those caught in possession of the drug. The death sentence is mandatory for anyone found with 200 grammes or more of cannabis, cannabis resin, or both in total. An online petition for marijuana legalisation has pulled from local newspapers 54 instances of the sentence being handed out since 2001. The actual number may be higher.

The mandatory death sentence has naturally been criticised as draconian, with both marijuana proponents and human rights activists contending that legalisation would solve the marijuana dilemma.

Despite harsh deterrents, the herb remains resiliently in common public use. An investigation by The Star in 2014 found that it is “shockingly accessible to college students in Malaysia” and is distributed largely through a “peer-to-peer” system. “All we had to do was go to a university in Petaling Jaya, pose as students, and ask random people,” a Star reporter wrote. “Almost everyone said he either smoked weed or knew others who did. By the third person we spoke to, we got Sadhi’s (the dealer) number.”

It is from college students and young working adults that we get most of the arguments for marijuana legalisation. Ask any stoner why marijuana should be legalised – preferably while he’s high, for better results – and you’ll get a long treatise on the government’s misguided attitude, the benefits of marijuana and why the stuff just helps you relax, man. He or she may even vouch for its benefits on creativity. “Look at how inspired the late Bob Marley was.”

In short, you will get an insight into marijuana culture, as popularised by the aforementioned Mr Marley and countless other musicians and movie stars. Of course, most of those arguing for marijuana legalisation are not necessarily part of this culture; many of its users are just ordinary people looking for a safe, relaxed high that won’t make your teeth fall out. But marijuana owes a good part of its popularity to stoner culture, which means the debate for marijuana has been mostly riddled with myth and tradition.

This difficulty of getting an unbiased opinion, especially on marijuana’s health benefits, was indicated in a Malaysian Digest interview with Arif Husaini Abdul Rahim, a Medical Officer (MO) at Sarawak General Hospital. “We can’t study the chemicals in the plant if we have no legal means of obtaining it,” he said.

To tackle the issue of legalisation, especially in Malaysia where research on marijuana is even more scarce than in the West, you need to deal with facts. Two questions must be answered: What do we stand to gain or lose by its legalisation, and will legalisation cause more problems than solve them?

Until we tackle the haze surrounding the issue, we will be stuck with making the same old arguments.