Legalising medical cannabis under spotlight in Malaysia

A 2021 photo of a dried cannabis bundle in Ketama, in the northern Rif mountains of Morocco. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian Cabinet will discuss policy issues relating to legalising cannabis for medical use and developing the industry, the parliamentary caucus on medical marijuana has said.

"More than 40 countries have legalised consumption of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The caucus believes that Malaysia has the space and a huge opportunity in this industry for medicinal and research purposes which could deliver a lot of benefits for the country," it said in a statement on Tuesday (April 12) after a caucus meeting that was attended by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

"The Prime Minister responded positively on issues concerning the industry and said the matter will be discussed in further detail by the Cabinet."

It added that the global hemp, ketum, and medical cannabis industry is valued at RM60 billion (S$19.4 billion).

Ketum is a plant that has stimulant and opioid properties, similar to illegal and addictive substances.

The issue of legalising medical cannabis has come under the spotlight after popular local singer Yasin Sulaiman, who performs nasyid or Islamic devotional songs, was charged with growing and trafficking cannabis, which he says he uses for medical purposes. He faces the death penalty or life imprisonment if found guilty under Malaysia's tough drug laws.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin waded into the debate last week, saying he welcomed industry- or academia-initiated research and clinical studies on marijuana use.

"Much discussion of late on medicinal use of marijuana," he said in a post on Twitter. "So far, there have been no full submissions for a clinical study/trial. Much expressions of interest, talk and social media advocacy."

Yasin, 47, was arrested on March 24 at his home in Selangor on suspicion of cultivating 17 cannabis plants and trafficking 214g of the drug. He was charged on March 31 and denied bail.

Yasin's lawyer Yusmadi Yusoff said individuals in possession of 200g or more of marijuana are presumed under Malaysian law to be distributing drugs.

When requesting bail for his client, Mr Yusmadi said Yasin suffers from bipolar disorder.

"He was admitted to hospital in 2009 and since then, he has sought treatment from several specialists," Mr Yusmadi told The Straits Times.

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The former Pakatan Harapan administration, which governed from 2018 to 2020, had earlier embarked on discussions to legalise marijuana for medical treatment.

In October last year, former youth minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman initiated the multi-party parliamentary caucus to study the matter.

In November, Mr Khairy announced that products containing cannabis used for medicinal purposes can be imported and used in Malaysia if the product is in compliance with the law.

Products containing cannabis should be registered with the Drug Control Authority, he said in a written parliamentary reply to Mr Syed Saddiq who had asked his ministry to clarify Malaysia's position on medical marijuana.

Importers must also have a licence and import permit, while the sale or retail supply for the medical treatment of selected patients must be carried out by a registered medical practitioner or pharmacist, he added.

While Yasin's case has found sympathy among his fans, others argue that medical cannabis could be misused.

"There are concerns that it may cause more harm than benefit," medical activist Suhazeli Abdullah, advisory board chairman of the Ibnu Sina's Medical Charity Organisation of Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation, wrote in a Facebook post on March 29.

There is not enough evidence to support the use of medical marijuana and there is a risk that it may be misused, he argued.

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