By S.S. YOGA
A certain tree is getting scientists
excited because of its medicinal and drug-related properties. The
authorities, on the other hand, are rather displeased about the effects
this tree or more accurately its leaves have on people. What is the fuss
The tree, locally known as ketum
or biak or scientifically, Mitragyna speciosa, is
found mainly in Perlis and Kedah and the East Coast of Peninsular
Malaysia. Ketum also grows in Thailand (where it is called kratom)
and the Philippines, while other Mitragyna species are found in India
Ketum has been in the news for the
past few years mainly because some people have been using its leaves as
a drug that can give them a high akin to some banned narcotics.
It has been reported that many stalls
sell drinks made from ketum leaves and since it is cheap (RM1 a packet),
many youths are using it as an alternative to other drugs especially
academicians are upset that the police have spearheaded
operations to chop down ketum trees in a bid to stop it from
being used as an alternative to ganja
Assoc Prof Dr Mustafa Ali Mohd of
Universiti Malaya, Faculty of Medicine, Pharmacology Department, at a
recent seminar to examine the use and abuse of ketum, says that so far
only one study has been done on its addictive propensity.
Dr Sangun Suwanlert’s study examined
users of the plant in Thailand in 1975 and concluded that there were
indeed addictive effects. In Thailand, the plant has been banned since
Since August last year, anyone in
Malaysia who is in possession of ketum leaves or involved in processing
and selling it can be charged under Section 30 (3) of the Poisons Act
1952 and fined up to RM10,000 and/or jailed for four years.
Scientists and academicians have no
problem with that but are upset that police have spearheaded some
operations to chop down the “innocent” trees. Deputy Internal Security
Minister Datuk Noh Omar was reported to have said that unless they can
find people to guard every ketum tree (to prevent youth from using the
leaves to get high), the police should be allowed to chop them down.
ACP Nooryah Md Anwar of the Royal
Malaysian Police’s Narcotic Department at Bukit Aman clarifies that
planting the tree is not an offence (under the Poisons Act) and the
police don’t have the authority to fell the trees.
“If it is a drug, it is a drug. We
would like to have it listed under the Dangerous Drugs Act as that gives
us more power and governs even the planting of the tree. We have
observed that the dosage and frequency of use have gone up,” explains
Assoc Prof Mustafa Ali
She provides some statistics to back
her claim. In July last year there were two seizures and in January this
year there were 45. Slightly more than 1,000 kg of the leaves and under
236,000 litres of the drink have been seized. There have been 99 cases
since it became an offence to handle ketum and 29 have been charged, but
no one has been jailed.
Enforcement officers of the Health
Ministry’s Pharmacy Division are authorised to conduct operations but
they can only seize and issue summons and not make arrests, says Azman
Yahya, an official of the division.
He says as a result of the crackdown,
1kg of ketum leaves which used to cost RM10 has gone up in price to
RM16. The bitter drink, which looks similar to sugar cane drink, now
sells at RM2 a packet.
Researchers like Mustafa say that
it is a mild drug which can be used to wean hard-core addicts the way
methadone has been used. ACP Nooryah is having none of that and says it
is just substituting one form of addiction with another. Mustafa
counters that it is giving lower dosages of something that is not as
addictive to slowly help addicts kick their habit.
What Mustafa and scientists like
consultant chemist Prof Datuk Ikram Said of Univeristi Kebangsaan
Malaysia are also saying is that there are many potential pharmaceutical
properties in ketum. Prof Ikram is one of the foremost experts on ketum
having started research on it in 1984. He agrees that there is abuse,
but there is also “use” and pleads that the trees not be destroyed.
“There is an alkaloid (nitrogenous
substance found naturally in plants) called mitragynine that is not
found in other Mitragyna species. In Malaysian ketum it makes up 12% of
all the alkaloid content while in the Thai species it accounts for 66%.
It could prove to be a promising drug which is stronger than morphine,”
says Prof Ikram.
He adds that many of these alkaloids
exist naturally and cannot be synthesized.
Scientists feel there are many more
properties of the ketum that need further research.
They include its potential as an
analgesic (painkiller like morphine), as cough medication like codeine,
and as an anti-inflammatory agent. These are closely aligned to the
traditional use of ketum as a cure for fever and coughs and as treatment
To date they have not detected any
toxic effects of the plant.
They say if these potential
properties are researched and commercialized, ketum could save the
country millions of ringgit in imported drugs.
They maintain that action should be
taken against those who abuse the plant but the plant itself should be
A national committee on ketum has been
formed and perhaps it would be the best body to resolve this issue.
How ketum is abused