As the west rides the green wave, cannabis can still get you killed in some countries

June 04, 2021

2021 feels like a year riding the crest of the green wave, the start of a canna-woke era when people, companies, and governments are finally and overwhelmingly recognising the use of cannabis to treat medical ailments and our modern lifestyle. Laws and enforcement governing marijuana are changing around the world even to the point of expunging records for those who have lost years of their lives serving prison sentences for a crime that no longer exists.  

Despite this awakening, there are still plenty of 420 un-friendly countries in the world handing out harsh penalties for possession of cannabis and death sentences for those involved in sales and distribution. The laws in some of these countries are archaic and have been dormant for decades, while others are still actively in use. 

35 countries still have the provision of capital punishment for drug smuggling. Of those, in 13 the death sentence is mandatory. Foretold is forewarned, these are the worst places in the world to smoke weed. 

Ok, maybe not all are the worst places. Alphabetically on every list of countries where it’s dangerous to the point of losing your head is Afghanistan. The birthplace of every cannabis strain on the planet, Afghanistan is exceedingly famous for its ancient tradition of making hash, which is still alive and well today, as is the use and cultivation of marijuana in much of the country. It’s the case of consumption being illegal on paper but not in practice and there are plenty of other countries on the big list that are the same. 

Cannabis is still farmed in Afghanistan. Photo: David Gill, 2010

Pakistan, for instance, where the tradition of growing and using cannabis is as old as Afghanistan is another place that promises the ultimate price for possession and trafficking weed, but consumption is as regular as mealtime in most of the country. Where people get in trouble is smuggling not smoking. The export and distribution of hash from this area is under the control of tribal leaders and government officials protected by police and the military. Leave it to the professionals because trying a takeaway of over a kilo may cost your life. 

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Saudi Arabia is extremely harsh and attentive when it comes to drugs, including alcohol. Possession or use of any controlled substance can result in public flogging, large fines, and or imprisonment. In recent years executions have been reduced and foreigners caught in possession of small amounts are most likely to be deported after spending some time in jail. The sale and transport of any drugs can result in the death penalty. 

Neighbouring Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and The United Arab Emirates are all listed on the Harm Reduction Index as being in either the high or low application columns. The UAE over recent years has distinguished itself for arresting travellers with trace amounts of marijuana on and even in their persons. Infamously a British traveller was arrested in the international airport for having residue on his shoe. 

Almost all of the countries that practice or at least promise the death penalty for trafficking cannabis are either in the Middle East or Asia with the exceptions being a few standouts in Africa such as Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia. Though Sudan and Somalia are not forthcoming with information about how many people are sentenced to death, Egypt is very clear. Egypt, where marijuana has been illegal since 1877 last hung a British citizen for smuggling 3 tons of hash in 2013. 

Despite the important part that cannabis plays in both traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda treatments in India, where the plant has been in use for at least 2,500 years, both of these Asian powerhouses have the provision of capital punishment. Amnesty International reports that China sentences thousands of people a year to death for drug smuggling without making any distinction about what drugs are in play.

In India where the holiest celebration of the year is marked by mass consumption of marijuana in various forms, the death penalty still exists in certain states. It seems that the country has as many stances on the drug as Ganesh has faces, since it also (along with China) is one of the largest producers of CBD oil in the area, while it remains illegal within the country.

I can personally attest to India having some of the cheapest weed worldwide, selling for as little as USD $.10 per gram. Smoke or drink Bhang lassi (marijuana-infused drink) in the right places and no one cares. Getting caught trying to smuggle weed out of the country is where the real problems start. Though it’s also been said that getting a death sentence in the country can be commuted for 100k rupees or about 3,000 USD.

Bhang is openly sold on the streets of India, even though cannabis remains illegal

Probably the earliest known ban on cannabis was in the colony of Singapore, a port the British took over specifically to make the seat of their opium trade. Marijuana was made illegal in 1870 and while Singapore gained autonomy in the 1960s and became one of the wealthiest banking centres in the world, their hardcore stance on drug use and trade has remained one of the strictest, promising the death penalty for possession of just 500 grams. “It’s absolutely absurd and outrageous that we still have these laws in Singapore. We are supposed to be a role model nation in Asia, but we’re still beating and hanging people for smoking a plant.” Waigh Ling, a Singaporean drugs and alcohol therapist told me.

“It’s absolutely absurd and outrageous that we still have these laws in Singapore. We are supposed to be a role model nation in Asia, but we’re still beating and hanging people for smoking a plant”

Adjoined Malaysia, and neighbouring Brunei and Indonesia all also promise death for drug smugglers, and that includes weed. All three countries have legal systems structured on Shyra law which in some interpretations rules ganja to be najast or unclean along with other drugs, including alcohol. Their policies on possession of even tiny amounts are rough justice and they are not afraid to use the gallows for smugglers either. 

Brunei last executed a Malaysian national who was caught smuggling 6 kilos into the sultanate in 2017. Vice reported in February of this year the case of a 68-year-old grandfather in Malaysia who is currently facing death on 36 counts of distributing a controlled substance, selling edibles made with cannabis oil for pain relief. 

Muhamed Lukman claims to have brought himself back from the brink of death from cancer by using cannabis oils then dedicated himself to giving his oils away to the sick. He has appealed his sentence and offered the courts a petition of support with ten thousand signatures. He remains on death row even while Malaysia considers following neighbouring Thailand’s path towards decriminalizing marijuana. 

Since 2002 Indonesia has been fighting a fierce war on drugs that was kicked off with a speech by then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri who called for the execution of all drug dealers saying “For those who distribute drugs, life sentences aren’t enough, no sentence other than death is sufficient.”

This is also the tactic put in place by Philippino President Rodrigo Duterte, who personally abdicates the killing of all those suspected of either using or distributing drugs among his other insane policies. Duterte’s war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of at least 12,000 people according to Human Rights Watch and has had a serious effect on (pre-covid) tourism as those who once enjoyed indulgent holidays on the beaches and in the mountains of the country look elsewhere to spend their time and money.  

Just as so many former European colonies retain anti-drug laws implemented by their former colonizers, many southeast Asian countries who have millennium-long traditions using cannabis adopted laws and policies imposed on them by outside forces, namely the US as they followed the war in Vietnam with a war on drugs. 

The US war in Vietnam which affected the entire region politically and economically coincided with the social change movement of the 1960s in America, which included widespread use of marijuana. Many soldiers who served in Vietnam first experienced smoking grass while in the country and brought back samples. Eventually, the US pressured Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos to pass laws and take on eradication policies in exchange for aid and investment.

us soldier smoking cannabis through a shotgun in vietnam war
US soldiers ‘shotgun’ weed in Vietnam Photo: Jim Wells

Thailand retains the death penalty for drug smuggling, even as it moves toward decriminalising marijuana and rethinking drug enforcement laws that have packed its prison system. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar also all keep capital punishment on the books while more or less ignoring use within the countries. 

This is a region I know very well having lived in southeast Asia for over twenty years. I can attest to bars in Cambodia giving out pre-rolled joints and stepping into little houses while at bus stops in Vietnam for a cup of tea and a pipe of good weed or even opium. Most of the jungle shag on offer in Thailand comes from Laos where weed is so cheap travellers might just give away their stash before moving on, since the only trouble you’re likely to have is at the border. 

Vietnam is reported to have put 74 people to death in 2019, the last year records are available for at the time, and thousands sent to forced labour camps for drug offences, but these would be mostly smuggling class A drugs like heroin and meth. In general, weed is available but the cops don’t play in Vietnam, which would make me very cautious in the city and big tourist destinations. Only Myanmar has a recent case of sentencing death for smuggling cannabis (5lbs). The case has been criticized as being politically motivated as the suspect was a Muslim man. The accused claims he was set up for his pro-Rohingya activism.  

The death penalty for cannabis is not all long ago and far away, even in the western world. The US still has a federal law for enacting the death penalty for drug smuggling. Though it’s never been enacted, a zealous federal prosecutor could make the case. Though for marijuana that offence would have to involve 60,000 kilos; several shipping containers worth. 

Even among the 35 countries that still have the death penalty for marijuana some are presently considering decriminalization. Malaysia, Egypt, India are all considering decriminalization which should surely influence others in the region to do the same. Until then, know where you are and act accordingly.  

Perhaps long-time Singaporean resident Dan G. sums it best when he told the Malay Straits Times “ It’s simple math, when you’re in Singapore don’t smoke, if you need to smoke, don’t come to Singapore, easy enough.” 

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