By Amy Wong
In 2017, Amiruddin Nadarajan Abdullah, a.k.a ‘Dr Ganja’ was arrested and charged for an astonishing 36 drug-related offences under the Dangerous Drugs Act in Malaysia. Under the Act, anyone found with 200 grams of marijuana risks being charged for drug trafficking and sentenced to death.
As of October 2019, Amnesty International reported that 1,281 people were on death row in Malaysia, of which 73% had been convicted of drug trafficking offences. Currently a moratorium on executions is in place in Malaysia, but the fate of many still hangs in the balance.
Prior to his arrest, Amiruddin had found effective relief in the use of marijuana to treat his own chronic illnesses and had decided to help other terminally ill patients who were suffering from epilepsy and leukemia in Malaysia.
“When we first heard about Amiruddin Abdullah, we were intrigued by his backstory that was circulating throughout various news outlets – religiously devout 58 year old Indian Muslim, former armed forces captain and terminally ill gets arrested and charged with 36 counts of drug-related offences.
But, [he] wasn’t just any other drug dealer, he was considered as ‘Dr Ganja’ by his clients – who were mostly made up of terminally ill or mental health patients who went to him for CBD-infused confectionaries to treat their illnesses” say young Malaysian filmmakers Loh Jo Yee and Hidayah Hisham.
The filmmaking duo are one of three winners of this year’s FreedomFilmFest (FFF) film grant. Their film “Doktor Ganja” will premiere at FFF following production later this year.
Jo Yee (24) is currently working as a video producer in Petaling Jaya, having graduated from IACT College with a Bachelors Degree in Film and Broadcasting and Hidayah (24) is working as a video producer for BFM 89.9 in Kuala Lumpur.
Jo Yee says she first heard about FFF in 2018 during her final year at university when her lecturer encouraged her class to participate in the student documentary category,“FreedomFilmFest was a huge catalyst to my current passion for non-fiction storytelling. This year being my first proper year as a working adult and filmmaker, I really want to make sure Dr Ganja’s story will be heard by others before it’s too late.”
Hidayah describes film as being the ultimate tool of storytelling, “Capturing Dr Ganja and his family go through this ordeal in film will inform the audience in more ways than just learning about them in an article or podcast. It’s an important document of struggle that not everyone gets to see or feel firsthand.”
“The audience will get a closer look into the lives of those who have suffered and benefited from marijuana in Malaysia – specifically in Dr Ganja’s life. It’s a personal recount of survival when the odds are against you in every way, but his persistence is admirable – you can’t help but root for him despite his optimism against the set reality of Malaysia’s laws” says Hidayah.
“We want [the public] to realize the topic of drug use is a multifaceted issue and it’s never really set in stone. We hope that our film allows viewers to cross examine the topic from various perspectives – legal, medical and even socially to really see this topic from a widened and more nuanced perspective” says Jo Yee.
Across the world there has been a shift in policies towards drugs, notably with relation to the medicinal use of cannabis. In 2018, neighboring Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to decriminalize the use of medical marijuana. Meanwhile, discussions over whether the same should be done in Malaysia have waged on for years.
In 2019, former Malaysian Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad told Parliament that there was “space for the ministry to get consent” for clinical research into the use of marijuana for medical purposes. But to date, no government decision has been made.
“It’s not just Malaysia that is facing difficulties in moving the needle – it’s Southeast Asia too. Thailand was the first country to legalize marijuana and it took them a while too. Successful policy reform takes root in education, research and development – Malaysia lacks both. We hope that the story of Dr Ganja will help kick start the urgency, not just among policy makers but the public too” say the filmmakers.
Filming for “Doktor Ganja” began earlier this month. Following production, Jo Yee and Hidayah say they will engage with local and regional NGOs involved in harm reduction policy, to gain further insight on how to push for reforms within the legal and medical sector.
The documentary will be mentored by award-winning Malaysian filmmaker Lau Kek Huat, who was also on the judging panel for this year’s FFF film grant pitch.
The FFF film grant pitch took place online on 28th May 2020. Five documentaries were pitched and two were selected as Malaysian film grant recipients this year. The judging panel comprised of human rights activist Adam Adli, award-winning filmmaker Lau Kek Huat and In-Docs Program Director Amelia Hapsari.