Last month, six people were sentenced to death for drug trafficking by a Malaysian court. Two are Malaysian and the rest are Indian nationals – another country that maintains the death penalty for drug offenses. While Malaysia has taken steps to make the death penalty for certain drug offenses non-mandatory, slow implementation of the law and the retention of the death penalty means that many more will executed in the name of the war on drugs.
The six people are among hundreds facing capital punishment for drug law violations in Malaysia. And among hundreds more in the region. Less than two months ago, China executed seven people for drug offenses, in front of thousands of onlookers. And just a few years ago, Indonesia executed eight people for drug offenses, despite repeated pleas for mercy from family members, citizens, human rights organizations, the United Nations and governments from around the world.
Even here in the U.S., where the death penalty isn’t applied for drug offenses, the current opioid overdose crisis has led to more criminalization of people who sell drugs. The Governor of the state of Florida recently signed a bill which would expand the definition of first degree murder – a crime for which the death penalty can be applied in the state – to include selling a lethal dose of the opioid, fentanyl.
The United Nations opposes the use of the death penalty for drug law violations, and has repeatedly upheld that using the death penalty to enforce drug laws violates international law. International law limits the application of the death penalty to the “most serious crimes” which does not include drug use, sales, or trafficking.
Despite this, 33 countries still use this ineffective and draconian measure to deal with drug offenses. In some countries, there have been signs of reform. Iran, which has sentenced thousands to death for drugs, recently amended its penal code, indicating that even countries that have long relied on capital punishment for drug offenses are realizing how ineffective it is.
While the death penalty represents an extreme example of the perverse ways in which governments punish people suspected of involvement with illegal drugs, many more countries around the world of are also guilty of heinous crimes in this misguided global drug war.
Suchitra Rajagopalan is the research coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.