Drug in demand
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 about?
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 and Africa.
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 ganja (cannabis).
Scientists and 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 1943.
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 ACP Nooryah.
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.
Azman adds that he has seen ketum users with withdrawal symptoms.
ACP Nooryah says that the symptoms include hostility, aggression, mucus formation, inability to work, aching in muscles and joints and jerky movements of the limbs.
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 synthesised.
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 for diarrhoea.
To date they have not detected any toxic effects of the plant.
They say if these potential properties are researched and commercialised, 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 preserved.
A national committee on ketum has been formed and perhaps it would be the best body to resolve this issue.
How ketum is abused:
Ketum leaves and a drink made from them which have been seized by the police.
Ketum belongs to the same family as the coffee plant. It grows best in swampy areas and there are two varieties found in Malaysia – one with a red midrib and the other with a white one (which apparently has stronger hallucinogenic effect).
The plant can reach a height of 15m with a spread of 5m and the leaves are dark glossy green in colour. The flowers are small and yellow and look like a bishop's mitre (which gave rise to its scientific name Mitragyna).
Long-term users of ketum apparently become thin and their skin darkens, particularly on the cheeks. Traditionally villagers in the north and east of the country and Southern Thailand use it to withstand the long hours toiling in the sun working in rice fields.
There are quite a few ways to consume ketum. One way is to pluck the leaves and dry them in the sun. They are then crushed and ground into powder. A teaspoonful of powder is mixed with water and drunk. The powder can also be placed on the tongue for the “desired” effect.
Another not so palatable-sounding process is mixing it with dried cow dung and tobacco, rolling it into a cigarette and smoking it. The leaves can also be mixed with dried coconut, ginger, onions, nutmeg and lime and rolled with daun kaduk (wild pepper leaf) and chewed like daun sirih (beetle nut leaves).
There’s also the popular method of boiling the leaves in a container of water, sieving the residue and rolling them into small balls to be dried and smoked later.