Government officials say concerns over possible addiction top the list of reservations over legalising marijuana in Malaysia, even for medical purposes, following the prime minister’s announcement earlier this year that the drug, also known as cannabis, would remain prohibited despite the move by a United Nations body to reclassify it as a less dangerous substance.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, representatives from the National Anti-Drugs Agency (Nada) and the health ministry also said the risks of marijuana outweigh its benefits.
Nada said Malaysia’s drug laws and policies are guided by the obligations laid out in the International Drug Control Conventions, and that the government remains committed to controlling the substances listed in these conventions to prevent diversion and abuse.
It added that data on the number of people detained by the police shows that almost 3% of arrests are related to marijuana.
The 2019 National Health Morbidity Survey estimates that some 146,000 people have used the drug at least once in their life, lending credence to concerns of the marijuana becoming a gateway drug for other substance addictions.
“Due to this gateway factor into addiction, it is paramount to prevent drug addiction among Malaysians by limiting access and abuse of marijuana,” Nada said.
Marijuana is a psychoactive drug used for both medical and recreational purposes. It is known locally as ganja.
The 2019 National Health Morbidity Survey estimates that some 146,000 people have used marijuana at least once in their life.
In Malaysia, marijuana falls under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, the Poisons Act 1952, and the Sale of Drugs Act 1952 and is illegal regardless of purpose.
In December last year, the UN’s Commission for Narcotic Drugs voted to remove cannabis for medicinal purposes from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where it had been listed alongside substances such as heroin.
Observers said then that the move could clear the way for an expansion of marijuana research and medical use.
In Malaysia, debate over the topic was stirred in 2018 when a 29-year-old man was sentenced to death for selling cannabis oil to cancer and leukaemia patients.
His death sentence was eventually revoked although he continued to serve time in jail.
Xavier Jayakumar, who was water, land and natural resources minister at the time, said then that the Cabinet had “very briefly” discussed the medicinal value of marijuana and had started early and informal talks on amending the relevant laws.
“My own personal view is that if it’s got medicinal value, then it can be a controlled item that can be used by health ministry for prescription purposes,” he said in a report by Bloomberg.
However, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in January this year that Malaysia would maintain its stand on cannabis and related drugs, adding that they bring harm to the community.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow on the drug’s addictive properties, Dr Feisul Idzwan Mustapha from the health ministry’s Disease Control Division said the specific natural substance used for medical or recreational purposes in the plant are called cannabinoids. The two primary cannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahidrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Both are used for medical purposes but THC has psychoactive effects which result in short-term side effects like dizziness, memory disturbance and a lack of concentration, balance and body coordination.
“Cannabis usage at an earlier age exposes individuals to the risk of psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia and cognitive problems.”
“THC is also used to treat nausea caused by chemotherapy and increase appetite in patients with extreme weight loss caused by AIDS, and CBD is used to treat some forms of epilepsy and other medical illness,” Feisul said.
However, he said those who frequently use large amounts of marijuana are at high risk of developing drug dependence. Prolonged use also increases the chances of developing psychiatric problems such as psychosis, anxiety and depression.
“Cannabis usage at an earlier age, especially during adolescence, exposes individuals to the risk of psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia and cognitive problems,” he said.
He added that studies on the effectiveness of cannabis for medicinal purposes are ongoing, and that high-quality research is needed for an indication of the acceptance of the drug for such treatment.
The psychoactive effects caused by THC are the primary concern for Nada in ensuring that the drug remains illegal in the country.
It said in 2019, a total of 142,199 drug dependents were detected, indicating an increase of 8.7% from 2018. Some 649.58kg of marijuana was also seized.
“We are continuously strengthening our efforts to eliminate and reduce the supply and demand for illicit drugs to reduce the negative consequences they bring to the society and nation,” Nada added.