BUKIT MERTAJAM, Penang: Mohd Saad Che May has spent most of his life being addicted to heroin.
The Bukit Mertajam resident was incarcerated 15 times in 40 years and admitted to stealing money to fuel his addiction.
“It was a living hell. I was in constant anxiety, thinking about how to get RM 50 (US$11.99) to buy the next tube to get high,” he said.
Mr Saad claimed he tackled his addiction when he started taking kratom, known locally as ketum. Kratom is a leaf hailed by locals for its pain-relieving and mildly stimulating effects.
He would pluck kratom leaves in his village, boil them for 4 to 5 hours, and drink the dark green fluid three times a day.
“It has a bitter taste but it is a miracle drug. The idea of taking heroin made me vomit after I started drinking ketum,” said Mr Saad, who now works at a local mosque.
“I’ve tried for years to kick my drug habit and it’s a huge relief to finally be able to get the proper medication,” he claimed.
Kratom is part of the coffee family, and people in northern Malaysia have been consuming it for centuries to treat back pain, fever, cough as well as diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
However, it is regulated under Malaysia’s 1952 Poison Act, making it an offence to harvest or sell the plant. Growing the plant for personal consumption is considered a grey area.
The Malaysian government is considering amending this act, such that it would be an offence to plant kratom without permission.
According to Malaysia’s Deputy Health Minister Lee Boon Chye last July, the amendment will prohibit cultivation, planting, import, export, supply or ownership activities for psychoactive plants like kratom.
The move is to curb abuse of kratom, especially among young Malaysians, who mix it with cough syrup and caffeine.
Kratom leaves contain psychoactive ingredients that give stimulating, sedative and euphoric effects. They can also lead to addiction.
However, the amendments will be a tough pill to swallow for individuals like Mr Saad, who has been reliant on it to curb his heroin addiction.
“I am not addicted to kratom like how I was addicted to heroin. But (kratom) is a medicine for me, I drink it the right way,” he claimed.
“Who knows what will happen if I stop drinking it,” he said.
Besides consumers like Mr Saad, farmers who grow kratom in Bukit Mertajam will also be impacted.
IGNORING COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL?
Mr Mohamad Nakhoin Ismail, who has a quarter-acre kratom farm near his home in Kampung Permatang Rawa, told CNA that he cultivates the plants for research purposes.
He had hoped that the government would consider legalising commercial cultivation of kratom after recognising its medicinal properties, as exporting the leaves to Europe and United States where it is consumed for medicinal purposes would be a profitable venture.
Mr Nakhoin claimed that a US researcher once offered him US$30 per kilogram to export his leaves, but he was unable to make the deal because he did not want to break the law.
“The law is old and archaic. If I were to sell these leaves overseas, I would be a rich man by now. And so too will my fellow neighbours,” he added.
Under Malaysian law, anyone found guilty of importing, exporting, manufacturing or selling kratom may be fined up to RM10,000 or jailed for four years.
In Mr Nakhoin’s village in Permatang Rawa, almost every household has a kratom plant. The hot and humid weather makes it conducive to grow kratom in the area, and Mr Nakhoin rues not being able to take advantage of its commercial potential.
“I urge the government to conduct more research on kratom, because Malaysia is missing out on a lot of money by turning away from such a lucrative business,” he added.
It is legal for farmers in Indonesia and Thailand to export kratom. According to data from 2016, 400 tonnes of kratom were exported to US from Southeast Asia monthly. Thus, the business was worth US$130 million annually.
KRATOM CONSUMED AT TOUR DE FRANCE
Kratom is also used in Europe. At the 2019 Tour De France, riders from Dutch team Jumbo-Visma drank ketones, a drink supplement, throughout the competition to aid in recovery and boost energy.
The supplement contains kratom, and its contents are not prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Another kratom farmer from Bukit Mertajam, who declined to be named, claimed that a European pharmaceutical company offered him “tens of thousands of ringgit” to supply ketum leaves for its manufacturing processes.
“I was tempted to say yes, but risking jail and fine was not worth it,” said the farmer, who consumes it himself to overcome his sinus issues and control his diabetes.
“If the athletes in Europe are allowed to consume it to help them, I don’t see why Malaysia is adopting such a tough stance,” the farmer added.
Drug researcher from University Sains Malaysia, Dr Darshan Singh, told CNA that the government should not be too hasty in enforcing a blanket ban on the cultivation of kratom. Instead, it should work more with researchers to study the plant's positive aspects, he said.
He noted from his research that heroin users are using kratom to self-treat their heroin dependence and suppress heroin withdrawal symptoms.
“Kratom has no medical problem, no cases of people dying from consuming (excessively) so far. The sad part is that the government has not engaged researches in the policy-making process and do not work hand in hand with the right people when drawing up measures,” said Dr Darshan.
He noted that there were some Malaysians who would add cough syrup to get high, and warned that the government should look at ways to control the legal distribution of kratom, to curb how it is being processed and sold in communities, instead of banning it.
He added that the potential livelihoods for farmers, who converted their rubber plantations to grow kratom, would also be impacted by the blanket ban.
“Ketum has an opioid-like effect, but it in itself is not an opioid,” he highlighted. “Maybe the blanket ban for kratom could result in more heroin-related deaths and transmission of HIV by heroin addicts who use needles,” said Dr Darshan.
When asked if the authorities would take into account kratom's benefits when amending the 1952 Poison Act, Malaysia's Ministry of Health referred CNA to an online government portal on the abuse of kratom leaves.
The portal noted that the leaves can be consumed for health benefits, but warned of "adverse effects" including addiction, insomnia and constipation.
The US-based National Institute on Drug Abuse said kratom leaves contain compounds that can produce psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects. It added that commercial forms of kratom are sometimes laced with other compounds that have caused deaths.