The increasingly widespread use of ketum (Mitragyna speciosa or kratom) in Malaysia earlier this year prompted the Ministry of Home Affairs to lead a push to schedule it in the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, an Act that contains incarceration, judicial corporal punishment, and capital punishment for drug offences. Ahmad and Aziz (2012) found that out of 562 ketum users surveyed in Northern Malaysia, 88% used it on a daily basis.

Photo by ThorPorre, Creative Commons Licence

Research in Malaysia on ketum indicates that it may have medicinal value. A 2009 study by Vicknasingam et al. of 136 active users in Northern Malaysia indicated that most respondents used ketum to manage opiate withdrawal symptoms and reduce opiate use. The authors note: ‘The claims of so many subjects on the benefits of ketum merits serious scientific investigation. If prolonged use is safe, the potential for widening the scope and reach of substitution therapy and lowering its cost are tremendous, particularly in developing countries.’

The push to schedule ketum as a dangerous drug was something that the Malaysian AIDS Council viewed as undesirable, and harmful to society as a whole. We began engaging Members of Parliament from both the ruling party (Barisan Nasional) and the opposition parties (Pakatan Rakyat) on an informal basis with technical information and evidence on harms of criminalization. MPs understood quite quickly that the creation of a whole new population of people with criminal records for drug use would mean that a larger population would be rendered unproductive as they would not be able to secure jobs, and would have to commit petty crime to survive. We emphasized strongly that criminalization for 60 years has resulted in more disease, more drug use, and more drug harms, and that countries with decriminalization policies had successfully reduced drug harms.

On 1 April 2015, the amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 (DDA) was tabled, and was met by opposition from both parties, including MPs from the geographically diverse constituencies of Setiu, Kuala Kedah, Puchong and Bagan Serai. We worked closely with ruling party MPs up to point of debate and throughout the day received positive updates about numerous MPs citing medicinal value and harms of criminalization as the key reasons for opposition of the amendment. Engagement with ruling party MP Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali, a GP by profession, was crucial. A key bit of information that was useful in debate was the vote to schedule ketamine proposed by China at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in March 2015. This vote was of course shelved due to opposition from many Member States on the basis of medicinal value.

In the afternoon of 1 April, the amendment to the DDA was shelved. On the same day, opposition MP Wong Chen wrote a Facebook post detailing reasons for opposition to the amendment, including: usage as traditional medication, lack of socioeconomic considerations, and the need for evidence-based rehabilitation. He also emphasized that the country should be moving towards decriminalization of drugs.

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