The plant has healing properties and should not be sacrificed because of human ignorance.
RECENTLY a religious edict was issued in one of the peninsular states prohibiting the use of ketum leaf and its products.
The ketum plant, Mitragyna speciosa, grows in the form of 12 to 20-feet tall trees, with large dark green leaves. In our part of the world the ketum is native to places like Northern Malaysia and Southern Thailand. In the Thai language it is called kratom.
The fatwa committee concerned also suggested that the misuse of ketum leaves should be a part of the Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA) 1952 (Act 234), instead of just the Poisons Act 1952 (Act 366). The latter only carries the maximum penalty of RM10,000 or four years in prison, and therefore has less deterring effect compared to the DDA.
No one will probably deny the social ills, medical costs and criminal activities (for example, smuggling) associated with the abuse of ketum in Malaysia.
In Thailand, in fact, the Kratom Act has been enforced since 1943. This act also makes it mandatory for living/existing trees to be cut down! Is it any wonder that ketum smugglers (Malaysian or otherwise) are willing to risk being caught because of the “high” prices offered?
A cursory view of the information available tells us that the ketum possesses unique and important properties that have not been satisfactorily and comprehensively documented with regards to its benefits and potentials. In fact if we read critically the reports that have surfaced regarding it, what has been the focus is the abuses and misuse of its products and not its inherent damage-causing capacity.
Biologically and religiously speaking, ketum and other plant species exist/are created with unique/special purposes, some of which are known and some yet awaiting more research and discovery on our part.
Since time immemorial, the ketum has been used, among others, as treatment for diarrhoea, diabetes and as mild stimulants among rural agrarian communities that did not and may still not have access to allopathic or modern medicine.
Looked at from one perspective, its use can fall under the World Health Organisation’s class of alternative or non-allopathic medicine. Under this category is Chinese medicine, which has gained much reputation.
What needs to be worked out properly, perhaps, is information about doses, efficacy, and possible side effects of the ketum as has been done for much of Chinese medicine or the Indian Ayurvedic medicine.
Such knowledge could be glimpsed from the corpus of indigenous traditional knowledge (ITK) of the communities concerned and ITK is now much sought after as it can provide clues and principles for sustainable resource use.
If and when the ketum products have negative effects then this refers to the hudud or limitations or pantang larang (literally do’s and don’ts) regarding its use.
This is not a strange idea as likewise there should be/are hudud pertaining to intake of even normal foods such as carbohydrates, fats and salt to name a few.
In this regard, the scientists and religious experts should combine or synergise their analyses to determine the proper guidelines for the halal and/or haram states of the ketum leaves and its products.
On the positive side it is instructive to know that (lest the fatwa is wrongly understood) studies also show that the alkaloid or naturally occurring chemical compound called mitragynine of the ketum possesses pain threshold elevating and antitussive or cough relieving properties but no addictive properties, and mitragynine is only found in ketum.
The Thai National Institute of Traditional Medicine has also found that ketum can aid drug addicts to kick their habit.
What we need to ensure is that despite the Fatwa and Acts affecting it, the image and impression will not grow that ketum is inherently bad and its existence is unallowable as happened in Thailand.
If we allow its destruction we will not be doing justice to the species which is a creation highly regarded by the Creator. The Quran reminds us that to God belong the Heavens and the Earth and everything that lies in between the two, and we have no right to destroy His Creation unless it truly threatens us.
“God Most Gracious has created man, taught him speech (and intelligence). The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed; And the herbs and the trees – both bow in adoration” [ar-Rahman (55): 2-7].
The ketum is a Divine gift which, using the intelligence given to us, we should endeavour to find the best use for. What needs eliminating instead should be the ignorance, weaknesses and abusive acts.
The responsibility to overcome these, we should realise, does not lie only with the so-called “culprits” who usually belong to the socio-economically lower strata among us.
Let us not squander this precious asset of our nation (and the same for all the other wonderful flora and fauna that are now being threatened). In doing so we hope that we would not fall into the category of those who deny God’s favours (nikmat) to us.
“Then which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?” [ar-Rahman (55):16].
Despite the idealism, how do we address the challenge of abuse of the products of these wonderful species? Should we allow the continued sacrificing of a precious component of our biodiversity because of human ignorance and failure to control base instincts (nafs)?
Perhaps one possible solution is for the various experts/stakeholders to work together to assist in efforts to alleviate the socio-economic issues of the vulnerable populations (for example, the unemployed, under-educated youths who give in to the “abuses”).
Without denying the position of the religious rulings, those processing the knowledge and powers to turn the ketum or others like it into a blessing instead of a curse need to work synergistically and synchronously, as everyone can play a role.
The Quran praises this attitude.
“...Those who range themselves in ranks, are strong in repelling (evil); and they say ‘not one of us but has a place appointed; and we are verily ranged in ranks (for service)’” [as-Saffat (37): 1-2, 164-165].
Professor Datin Dr Azizan Baharuddin is Ikim’s Deputy Director-General. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.