Legalising ketum, yay or nay?

The plant has long been stigmatised as a harmful drug, despite its potential of bringing in additional revenue for the country 


EXPERTS are at the crossroad on the legalisation of kratom, or better known as ketum, in Malaysia. 

The plant has long been stigmatised as a harmful drug, despite its potential of bringing in additional revenue for the country. 

Ketum, or its scientific name, Mitragyna speciosa, is a plant in the coffee family which has for generations been used as a herbal medicine to treat ailments such as back pain, fever and cough. 

It is indigenous to several countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. 

Malaysia Pharmaceutical Society Amrahi Buang was of the opinion that although ketum can be used for medical purposes, the government should not legalise it because the cons outweigh the pros. 

He said to formulate ketum into pharmaceutical dosage would require components known as psychoactive alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, which have similar effects to those of opioids. 

If legalised, he said, it should be controlled strictly under the Dangerous Drugs Act. 

“The legalisation of ketum will increase the risk of abuse and misuse, which could affect mental health and lead to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others,” Amrahi told The Malaysian Reserve. 

Last year, Federal Narcotics Criminal Investigation Department director Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay called for caution and thorough research before deciding to legalise ketum for medical purposes. 

He said that the government would need to amend certain laws such as the Poisons Act 1952 and the National Land Code to allow these drugs to be legalised. 

“Some states do not allow the growing of ketum, while others do. Growing ketum is not wrong, but harvesting, processing and selling ketum are illegal. 

“The land issue is under the state governments, so they have to amend their respective land laws, too,” he was reported as saying. 

On the contrary, Medika Natura Sdn Bhd CEO Abdul Razak Mohd Isa said the country has sufficient policies and regulations in place under various ministries to manage and control ketum and even cannabis. 

“The government should legalise not only ketum but cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms,” he said, adding that drugs of any type can basically be misused and abused. 

“Even paracetamol, if not taken according to the recommended dosage, could damage the liver and kidney and this can be fatal in severe cases. But this does not mean that we have to stop selling paracetamol. 

“Another example is alcohol. There are many fatal road accidents and health complications due to alcohol abuse, but that does not stop us from selling and drinking alcohol. Same with cigarettes and many more examples,” he said. 

Abdul Razak added that the country could be the world producer and exporter of botanical drugs and “high-value natural ingredients”. 

“We are losing the opportunity to engage in high-end economic activities. 80% of the world population is estimated to use traditional medicine and 40% of the approved pharmaceutical products in use today derive from natural substances,” he said. 

Abdul Razak said the potential GDP contribution was RM28 billion by 2027 and Malaysia could reduce healthcare cost of RM18 billion by 2027. 

“The country must reduce Malaysia’s total dependence on imported drugs to ensure healthcare security and learn from the Covid- 19 vaccines debacle,” he said. 

Abdul Razak cites a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia publication titled “The Legality of Using Ketum Leaves According to Shariah Perspective”, which concluded that it is permitted (mubah) to take ketum juice if it is not mixed with prohibited substances and is for treatment and no other purposes. 

“If ketum juice is mixed with unclean sources, then its status changes from permitted (mubah) to forbidden (haram),” the article reads. 

In March last year, it was reported that Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor had proposed to the federal government that ketum export to foreign countries, particularly Thailand, be legalised as one of the strategies to combat smuggling. 

He said apart from generating tax revenue, the move would also allow enforcement agencies to focus their resources elsewhere. 

Muhammad Sanusi said that the state should capitalise on the huge prospect of the ketum export market as Thailand had already commercialised the crop, especially for pharmaceutical products. 

In May, he said the State Economic Planning Division had completed its proposal to seek federal approval to legalise the export of ketum. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition