KUALA LUMPUR • Public outrage over a death penalty handed to a 29-year-old man is spurring Malaysia to start talks to legalise marijuana for medical use, racing to become the first Asian country to do so.
The Cabinet "very briefly" discussed the medicinal value of marijuana in a meeting last week and has started early and informal talks on amending the relevant laws, Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources Xavier Jayakumar said in an interview on Tuesday.
For now, the focus is on overturning a death sentence handed last month to a man convicted of possessing, processing and distributing medicinal cannabis oil.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said the verdict and relevant law should be reviewed.
The Cabinet has reached a consensus to remove capital punishment in the man's case, but garnering support for legalising medical marijuana will be "an uphill battle", Dr Xavier said.
"It will take a bit of encouragement and convincing as far as this topic is concerned," he added.
"My personal view is that if it's got medicinal value, then it can be a controlled item that can be used by the Ministry of Health for prescription purposes."
Canada has taken the lead in developing the medical pot sector, creating a cannabis industry worth more than US$60 billion (S$82 billion) ahead of legalising cannabis use next month. Germany and a few American states are taking its example.
In South-east Asia, drug trafficking is often punishable by death, with little distinction made between marijuana and hard drugs such as cocaine.
Indonesia has faced global censure for executing drug traffickers, while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war has left at least 4,000 dead since he took office.
Still, Malaysia is not alone in looking into the medical marijuana industry. Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organisation, a unit of its Ministry of Public Health, is trying to persuade its military government to approve a study of the drug so that it can market it for medical use.
The challenge for Malaysia, which still imposes capital punishment for some drug trafficking offences, is how to draft new laws that are specific enough to differentiate marijuana for medical use as opposed to recreational and other uses.
The Ministry of Health, which has the final say, remains sceptical about the medicinal value of cannabis due to a lack of proof, Dr Xavier said.
"It's already been done in certain countries. If it's going to be used for medicinal purposes, it can be used. Not for social purposes, for medicinal purposes - yes, it should be allowed to be used."