The debate over whether or not to legalize medical marijuana continued to spread across Southeast Asia this week as government officials, parliament members, and prominent Muslim activists in Malaysia added their voices to what's become a heady debate.
Malaysia is the third country in Southeast Asia where long-buried conversations about marijuana have taken root and began to sprout. Thailand, in what was called a New Year's "gift" to the people, legalized medical marijuana a little over a month ago. And in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has led the country on a bloody—and disastrous—war on drugs the topic of medical marijuana has risen to the forefront of the conversation as well... even inspiring poorly received jokes from Duterte himself.
But is this the start of a "green wave" of legalization in Southeast Asia, as some experts have predicted, or is the wider debate outside Thailand—where medical use is already legal—about to go up in smoke?
The answer might lie in Malaysia— a country which has some of the same kinds of harsh anti-drug laws that are common across the region but lacks the dark history of a bloody war on drugs like the Philippines or, to a lesser but still troubling extent, Indonesia. Malaysia is also in the midst of a dramatic change led by a new reformist government that aims to end its use of capital punishment to deter crimes entirely.
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So if marijuana legalization has any hope of expanding beyond Thailand, it might hinge on what happens in Malaysia. This week, the country's health ministry said it could consider allowing the use of cannabis for medical purposes, as long as a pharmaceutical company could prove that it's both effective and safe.
"If there is enough information to show it is safe and effective for use for certain conditions, then the ministry will be able to consider based on the particular indication," Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye told the local press on Monday, February 11.
The deputy minister clarified his comments on Tuesday, adding that while currently, there were no companies in Malaysia attempting to register a medicinal product containing cannabis or one of its extracts, there was also nothing preventing a pioneering company from trying to register such medication and submitting its product to the ministry's review board.
"Those who wish to use cannabis-based products must submit the formula to the pharmaceutical department to be registered as a medicine before it can be used," Lee told the local press. "When the application is submitted, the pharmacy will consider whether the formulation is effective and safe according to the prescribed indication before it is approved for use."
Together, the comments represent a sea change from only three years ago when the ministry's then head, Dr. Subramaniam Sathasivam, called legalization a non-starter, alleging that would ruin lives and damage society.
Today, the ministry is responding to what's become a growing chorus of activists and organizations calling for a change to the country's marijuana policies. This week, the Malaysian Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM), came forward in support of legalizing medical marijuana with Nadzim Johan of the association, telling the state-run news wire Bernama, that there was already a long list of clinical trials that have been conducted regarding its efficacy in treating the ill effects of chemotherapy for cancer patients and the symptoms of a growing list of illnesses.
"It’s just that we have to look into how far the use of the products can be controlled and at the same time to carry out more clinical research on the plant and how it can be used as alternative medicine," Johan said. "It’s a huge loss if we refuse to make optimal use of the plant when it has been proven effective in the treatment of various illness, including cancer and nerve diseases."
But even a change in Malaysia doesn't necessarily mean the rest of the region will follow suit. While the movement for the legalization of medical marijuana has sparked wider debates in some Southeast Asian countries, in neighboring Indonesia – where weed continues to be regulated to the same extent as heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine – experts say that any legalization is still a far ways off.
Yohan Misero, a narcotics policy analyst from Jakarta's Public Legal Aid (LBH Masyarakat), said that change in marijuana's classification, from a category one drug (the highest) to a category two or three substance still has a long way to go. But it's a far more likely path than a total change on its medical use.
"If I was asked is there hope, I would say I hope the government would change marijuana's classification [as a category one drug], but if I was asked whether there are signs of us going there (legalizing it for medical use), I would say I don't think so," Yohan told VICE.
Yohan pointed to an instance in 2017 when a woman suffering from cancer was unable to access marijuana. She later died and her husband, who tried to procure it for her, was locked up. In Malaysia, a similar story recently happened where a man was arrested and sentenced to death for the sale of medical oils containing marijuana extracts to cancer patients. There, his imprisonment and sentence triggered public outcry, both among citizens and in the halls of parliament, that later put his sentence on hold and prompted a wider review of the use of capital punishment as a whole.
But in Indonesia, the response to the man's arrest was far more tempered. The government failed to respond and the health minister at the time rejected the idea that weed could be used in the treatment of cancer outright, telling the press "there are other drugs to overcome it," Yohan explained.
"Compared to Malaysia, I didn't see the same heart and purpose from the Indonesian government [regarding the case]," Yohan said.
— Staff writer Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja contributed to this report
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.