Eye on economic potential of ketum


KB01_150518_KETUM

KETUM (scientific name Mitragyna speciosa) leaves have been used for centuries in South-East Asia, including Malaysia, as a panacea for benign ailments such as diarrhoea, cough, fever and pain, and also as an aphrodisiac.

In the 18th century, ketum was also used as an opium substitute (a remedy to suppress opium craving) in the Malay peninsula. Dubbed “candu” by the Malays, ketum was used when there was a shortage of opium.

Ingested as a “mild stimulant drug”, ketum enabled manual labourers to engage in strenuous work for long periods.

In 2003, after the most abundant and active alkaloid of the plant, mitragynine, was classified as a psychotropic substance, the use of ketum was regulated under the Poisons Act 1952. This effectively outlawed the traditional usage of ketum in this country, as the import, export, manufacture, sale and possession of mitragynine is listed as a criminal offence under Section 30 of the Act.

It was thought that uncontrolled usage of ketum could undermine the government’s fight against the menace of drug abuse, particularly heroin.

Given that cultivation of the plant remains largely legal, farmers and landowners in the northern states have continued to grow and own large ketum plantations.

Due to this oversight, cultivators could, if they want to run afoul of the law, benefit from the illegal sale of the leaves, especially after Thailand decriminalised the use of ketum in August last year.

In fact, after Thailand lifted the ban, Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor has been lobbying the Federal Government to legalise the export of ketum.

Meanwhile, Rural Development Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid was quoted as saying that smallholders under the Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (Risda) may stand to benefit if the Federal Government allows the export of ketum leaves.

It would not be an offence for rubber smallholders to plant ketum to generate supplementary income if the export of ketum leaves is lawful.

Researchers in Malaysia who have been actively studying ketum foresee its huge potential to be developed as a new alternative to the opioid-based treatments that are currently available.

Preliminary findings show that ketum has no significant appeal as heroin, ATS (amphetamine-type stimulants) or cannabis, and it is also not the most preferred choice of substance among people who use drugs. It can be postulated that ketum does not have a high abuse potential compared to other psychotropic drugs. But since it can be abused, researchers believe that cultivation, possession, sales, distribution and consumption must still be regulated.

It is hoped that with the necessary support and funding opportunities, researchers will be able to conduct more in-depth studies on ketum with the aim of developing a new commodity and healthcare product to bolster Malaysia’s economy and healthcare industry one day.

DR DARSHAN SINGH MAHINDER S.

Centre for Drug Research,

Universiti Sains Malaysia

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