Oct 4 ― I became opposed to the death penalty when I realised that many desperately poor people are being sentenced to death for drugs, that these were not crimes of malicious intent, but rather crimes of desperation, and that this penalty does not address the problem which it originally intended to address: problematic drug use and societal instability.
Currently we have 1,064people on death row for drug-related offences. They are on death row even though there is a growing recognition that their execution will not reduce the amount of drugs on the street. We know that because many executions have taken place already in the region. None have resulted in a fall off in drug use. On the contrary, data from the Indonesian Drug User Network (known by its Indonesian acronym PKNI) shows that after the first and second wave of executions due to drug trafficking, drug use actually spiked.
The fact is, overwhelmingly, those sentenced to death for drug related offences are not running the drug business, and in the larger scheme of things, their execution has no impact on reducing the drug problems we face. We know their socio-economic status because as part of my work with Harm Reduction International four or five years ago, I collected data on the names, ages and employment status of the people sentenced to death for drugs in Malaysia. They sell vegetables at wet markets; they are car mechanics, food hawkers, or unemployed persons.
You don’t see the sons or daughters of millionaires being arrested for drug trafficking, nor persons gainfully employed as doctors, lawyers, academics. That’s not because people such people do not use or sell drugs, but because arresting them would result in more complications than arresting low-level street suppliers and drug mules.
Like law enforcement agents, the drug lords also target vulnerable people.
In the case of the vegetable seller arrested for transporting drugs ― she’d been selling vegetables for 15-20 years in wet markets when she was targeted by drug lords. For someone who is struggling to feed and school children, and has earned less than the minimum wage for most of her life, the promise of RM50,000 to carry drugs is a dream come true.
Do we want to sentence people to death for desperation? Is that the society we want to bequeath to the children we seek to protect?
The death penalty doesn’t combat drug use, because it doesn’t tackle poverty or the lack of human connections that are at the essence of social instability everywhere. In fact, it increases poverty, because it leaves families, children, without fathers and mothers. Without the necessary resources to support the children of incarcerated parents, and without the necessary resources to keep children in school, it’s a vicious cycle.
I also know people on death row who are harmless, who haven’t, and wouldn’t, hurt anyone, who have cultivated cannabis plants for epilepsy patients who cannot tolerate pharmaceutical medicines. While the cultivation of cannabis plants is illegal in Malaysia, medical research elsewhere has proven the efficacy of cannabis for the reduction of epileptic seizures. Does this merit the death sentence?
A huge amount of money is spent to detect drug mules, and keep people in death row for years pending appeals. This effort cripples law enforcement agencies who could be focused on more serious crimes. Should we not, instead, use this money to tackle problematic drug use and instability in communities more effectively?
What would a more effective approach to our drug problems look like?
Firstly, noted addiction scholars like the late Griffith Edwards, Tom Babor, and others, have written that the threat of detection is a more effective deterrent than harsh punishment. People are more deterred if there is a high risk of being caught, than by a harsh punishment if apprehension seems highly unlikely. Currently, it is estimated that drug seizures don’t even stop 1 per cent of drugs from reaching the street Moreover, an overwhelming increase in the trafficking of synthetic drugs means that drug mules are less and less relevant. These can be manufactured locally. For these, an increased police presence in general is more effective.
Secondly, Malaysia’s approach to problematic drug use is compulsory detention. Voluntary rehabilitation, with evidence-based medicines such as methadone and buprenorphine, and social and welfare support, has been proven to be far more effective. Compulsory detention has a 90% rate of relapse, yet they continue to be method du jour.
Thirdly, and above all, we need to fund programs that would give people a way out of the desperation that makes them such easy targets. I don’t think there are any micro-financing courses, or financial literacy courses going on in prison. We do offer some vocational skills, like carpentry, that often keeps people in the lower-middle-income trap. But we could instead offer them the skills and support they need to make a comfortable living wage. I can think of little that would be more effective at helping them turn away from temptation when approached by the drug gangs, than a viable livelihood.
I realise that ours is a punitive culture. We believe in meting out harsh punishments, and it will require a massive culture change for us to think about understanding root causes and finding solutions. But if we truly want to solve social problems such as problematic drug use and trafficking of those drugs, we cannot keep on repeating the same ineffective policies forever.
Some members of our judiciary, and former judges too, come across as very sympathetic. This is especially so in terms of judges who have had to, against their individual consciences, sentence people to death for drugs. They want the inflexibility in the law removed. I hope our government and parliamentarians can understand that too. And I hope this will result in a shift away from mandatory death sentencing in Malaysia very soon.
It’s important for us in Asean to work together against the death penalty, because people listen more when you’re a larger group. We in ADPAN understand we need to think about the Asean perspective, and we welcome the voice of CADPA (Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Asean) and their campaign to ‘End Crime not Life’.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.