[KUALA LUMPUR] Public outrage over a death penalty handed to a 29-year-old man is spurring Malaysia to start talks to legalize marijuana for medical use, racing to become the first Asian country to do so.
The cabinet "very briefly" discussed the medicinal value of marijuana in a meeting last week and have started early and informal talks on amending the relevant laws, Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources Xavier Jayakumar said in an interview on Tuesday in Putrajaya, the country's government centre.
For now, the focus is on overturning a death sentence handed last month to a man convicted of possessing, processing and distributing medicinal cannabis oil. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 93, has said the verdict and relevant law should be reviewed in the country, where Muslims make up more than half of the population. The cabinet has reached consensus to remove capital punishment in the man's case, but garnering support for legalizing medical marijuana will be "an uphill battle," Mr Xavier said.
"It will take a bit of encouragement and convincing as far as this topic is concerned," he said at his office. "My own personal view is that if it's got medicinal value, then it can be a controlled item that can be used by Ministry of Health for prescription purposes."
Canada has taken the lead in developing the medical pot sector, creating a cannabis industry worth more than US$60 billion ahead of legalizing cannabis use next month. Germany and a few US states are taking its example.
In South-east Asia, drug trafficking is often punishable by death, with little distinction made between marijuana and hard drugs like cocaine. Indonesia has faced global censure for executing drug traffickers, while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war has left at least 4,000 dead since he took office.
Still, Malaysia isn't alone in looking into the medical marijuana industry. Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organization, a unit of its Ministry of Public Health, is trying to persuade its military government to approve a study of the drug so it can market it for medical use.
The challenge for Malaysia, which still imposes capital punishment for some drug trafficking offences, is how to draft new laws that are specific enough to differentiate marijuana for medical as opposed to recreational and other uses. The Ministry of Health, which has the final say, remains skeptical about the medicinal value of cannabis due to lack of proof, Mr Xavier said.
He would have to lobby for more support among the ministers, consider public opinion on the matter, and hold formal discussions with the ministries overseeing health, environment, and trade.
"It's already been done in certain countries," Mr Xavier said. "If it's going to be used for medicinal purposes, it can be used. Not for social purposes, for medicinal purposes - yes, it should be allowed to be used."