LAST_UPDATESun, 22 Jul 2018 9pm

Ketum, There's More To This Controversial Plant Than Meets The Eye

Every now and then, something comes up in the news that reminds us of the dangers of drugs; and why we should avoid using it.

In Malaysia, the war against drugs is still going strong, with the authorities showing their intent and determination against eradicating what has been called the national enemy.

In their eagerness to reduce the access Malaysians have to drugs, recently the authorities announced their intent to clamp down on the consumption and sale of ketum leaves by increasing fines up to 10 times, and imposing longer jail time for offenders.

Perhaps towards the general public, this might not be a big deal as ketum has largely been perceived as one of the many dangerous drugs out there, and it has been a long time coming.

But to the myriad of ketum users out there, this has been distressing news, as it severely curtails a cultural and traditional practice that has been handed down through the generations.

What Was Once Sought For Its Medicinal Value Has Become A Substance Of Abuse

To the uninitiated, ketum is a type of plant that is native to Malaysia. Ketum leaves are typically used for consumption, as it has been touted as having medicinal purposes. In Malaysia, ketum leaves are used for consumption and their medicinal purposes for more than a hundred years now, making its mark on Malaysian medicinal history.Filepic: BernamaFilepic: Bernama

Nowadays, although consumption of the ketum leaves have slowed down due to the marvels of modern medicine, ketum leaves still remain very popular, especially in the northern states and rural areas, where the ketum plants grow undisturbed.

In fact, it is safe to say that for some of them, ketum is part of their daily routine, to the point that it can be considered a culture now.

So why is the government and the authorities adamant to outlaw ketum?

According to the authorities, the reason for the crackdown on the sale of ketum is due to some people who has been abusing it for it’s psychoactive components, or in layman’s terms “to get high”.

The National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK) has also revealed that ketum is sold at a relatively cheap price, therefore making it easily accessible to youth, and that ketum leaves are also added to other substances such as tobacco, alcohol, cough syrup, and even mosquito repellent.

“This has led it’s consumption becoming a trend among youths as (the juice) only costs RM10 a litre and is easily available on the black market,” said AADK’s enforcement and security director, Zainudin Abdullah.

So due to the abusers, the government is now looking to crack down on ketum, and thus possibly leaving it’s legitimate users in the lurch, with no other alternatives. So is this fair? Is the government looking at all sides in this issue?

To first understand the full repercussions of the crackdown on ketum and it’s effect on its users. First we have to look at the benefits.

It's Almost A Family Tradition

Pic: UtusanOnlinePic: UtusanOnline

Who better to ask from other than a user himself? So we spoken with Hazarul, 25, a self-professed ketum juice user.

According to Hazarul, in his hometown in Kedah, consuming the juice is basically part of daily life and something that is normal.

“In my hometown, they sell ketum juice in convenience stores, that’s how easy for us to get it,” he said.

So why is it prevalent over there, but so taboo around urban areas?Pic: Utusan OnlinePic: Utusan Online

Hazarul believes that it’s caused by the fact that ketum has been painted with the same brush with other drugs, making most people who had little exposure to it to believe that it’s actually a dangerous drug, when in fact it is not dangerous at all.

So what are the benefits of ketum? Ketum enjoys a large following in rural areas and northern states, what do they use it for?

“Most of them, just like me drink ketum juice for energy. The juice, when taken in the right doses, acts as a good energy drink,” Hazarul emphasized.

Hazarul even said that for most people that he knows drinks ketum juice, started as it is a family tradition.

“For example, I started using ketum juice for energy after watching my father, who also takes it before work everyday,” said Hazarul.

So, Hazarul as a frequent drinker of ketum juice agrees that the juice has it’s pharmaceutical qualities, but warns against drinking the juice from unknown origins.

“Some ketum seller doesn’t sell pure juice, which can bring other unwanted side effects. It might be laced with other things such as cough syrup, alcohol, and many more,” stresses Hazarul.

In fact according to Hazarul, that’s what gives ketum juice most of it’s bad reputation.

“Ketum juice when drank in its pure form, is good for your health. But when it’s mixed with other things, it can bring other effects such as drowsiness, and it can bring a ‘high’ as well,” Hazarul exclaimed.

When asked about the ban, Hazarul said that ketum leaves should not be banned outright, but instead should be researched carefully first.

“Everyone who uses it knows what it can do, and what are the good effects. If the government bans it outright, it will create a black market demand for ketum leaves and juices, which will allow for more spiked stmulant drinks.

“Instead, the government should do proper research and regulations on it, so that the government can benefit from it as well,” said Hazarul.

Hazarul certainly made a compelling case about the usage of ketum leaves in his daily use, but is it really all that good?

In our research about ketum, we also found Pak Jalil, a traditional medicine practitioner and masseuse from Selayang.

Ketum's Myriad Uses In Traditional Medicinal Treatment

Process of making Ketum juiceProcess of making Ketum juice

Pak Jalil tells Malaysian Digest that he has had more than 20 years experience in traditional medicine and traditional massages.

He confessed that he uses ketum in some of his medicine as well, and he prescribes it to his patients if the situation calls for it.

“Sometimes I use ketum juice as well when I think the person needs it. I will prepare the juice myself, and give them a bottle or two, depending on how much they need,” said the 56-year-old.

How Kratom/Ketum acts as a painkillerHow Kratom/Ketum acts as a painkiller

But how does he acquire his ketum juice?

Pak Jalil said that he boils the  leaves himself, as he has a friend who plants ketum near his house.

“As it is for my patients, I need to make sure that the juice is not tainted in anyway, so I can’t just buy it from anyone.

“I prefer to get it from a source that I can trust, and I even tested it first to ensure that it doesn’t give my customers bad effects when they use it,” said Pak Jalil.

So when does Pak Jalil prescribes his customers with ketum juice then? Pak Jalil said that the best part of it is that it is versatile.

“One of the reasons I give my customers ketum juice is when they complain of lethargy. Ketum juice when taken in the correct amounts, are very good for energy.

“I also prescribes ketum juice in higher amounts to help with pain. If my customers are complaining about pain or discomfort, then I find that a good amount of ketum juice will help them with it,” explained Pak Jalil.

Yes, according to Pak Jalil, ketum juice is also good as a painkiller. And this is not just an old wive’s tale.

In the western world, Ketum or Kratom as they call it is frequently used as a substitute for traditional painkillers or Opium, as it can give the same effects with less dependency.

This means that the users can switch from opium to ketum for their pain, and they will not experience any severe dependency issues as they will with opium.

But Pak Jalil also warns that ketum should not be taken lightly.

“Ketum can be useful, but as with everything else, should be taken in moderation. I always warn my customers to ease up on the Ketum juice and only use it when necessary, so that they will not get addicted.

“Ketum can be addictive as well, so some moderation and care is necessary,” stressed Pak Jalil.

Pak Jalil also said that as a safety precaution, he does not sell his ketum juice to anyone, but only to the people who he believes needs it.

“Although I sell pure ketum juice without it being mixed with anything, it still can be abused. So I only sell it to the people who needs it.

“I had several people who were here without any pain or sickness, and just wanted to buy some ketum juice. These people, I will turn away,” said Pak Jalil.

When told about the recent crackdown on ketum dealings by the authorities, Pak Jalil said that it does not surprise him.

A ketum farm in Kedah. Pic: NSTA ketum farm in Kedah. Pic: NST

“Ketum has a bad reputation, which is somewhat undeserving. But I do agree that some sort of regulation needs to be enforced, so that only the people who needs it can use it, and it wont be open to abuse,” explained Pak Jalil.

“All in all, I think that there’s some good and bad about the crackdown. It’s the government’s job to ensure that the good outweighs the bad.

Judging from the testimony of the two frequent Ketum users, both of them said that proper research needs to be done regarding ketum.

So we started to wonder, is there any expert authority we can contact regarding ketum?

If Government Regulates Ketum Further, People Will Resort To Black Markets Where Prices Are Higher

In our search we found Dr Darshan Singh Mahinder Singh from Universiti Sains Malaysia, who has dedicated his entire work into researching ketum, among other drugs.

Dr Darshan SinghDr Darshan is adamant that the authorities should not look to punish users of ketum.

According to him, there are a number of reasons that ketum should not be treated like any other drugs out there.

First, he said that there is no evidence at all that ketum leads to health problems, or even fatalities.

“In the over a hundred years of ketum has been in Malaysia, there has never been any recorded case of a ketum user being admitted to a hospital for health problems, what more to say death,” said Dr Darshan.

He highlighted that in the United States of America, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has also been looking into the ban of Ketum, or Kratom as they call it there.

But within 30 days, the ban has been uplifted due to the sheer number of protests against the ban.

“In the US, millions of people uses ketum as a safer alternative to Opioids. They use it as a painkiller, as it can be used to treat chronic pains,” said Dr Darshan.

Dr Darshan also pointed out another use of ketum which is as a safer alternative to illicit drugs.

“In the northern states, or the rural areas, there are many users who uses ketum to help them wean off more dangerous illicit drugs, such as heroin, ketamine, cocaine.

“These users are self medicated, as they do not want to go to a centre due to the social stigma it will bring for them.

“So they use it to help them get off more dangerous drugs, as Ketum can help with the withdrawal symptoms,” explained Dr Darshan.

“So, if the authorities try to ban ketum or regulate it, it will cause a lot of these users to regress back to illicit drugs, which will bring more problems.

Dr Darshan also said that even though it is true that ketum does have a psychotropic effect on its users, its effects are not as bad as other drugs.

“For example, when they use ketum, it will act as a sedative. They will get euphoric, and will get a high, but they will not be aggressive as Ketum does not work like that,” said Dr Darshan.

Dr Darshan also pointed out that it is very cheap, so the likelihood of people resorting to crime to buy it is very unlikely.

“But if the government continues with their plan to regulate ketum, people will have to resort to black markets, where the prices are higher.

“And this will create more social issues,” said Dr Darshan.

In conclusion, Dr Darshan also echoed the statements of Hazarul and Pak Jalil, saying that more research needs to be done before a blanket ban is served.

“I have been researching ketum for years, but I still think that the research on ketum is still at a preliminary level. More research needs to be done, then we can discuss the prospects of regulating it,” concluded Dr Darshan.

So in the end, perhaps there are some good to ketum as well.

Rather than use public perception and fear mongering stories to determine the necessity of a ban, more research needs to be done, before anything can be said of it.

After all, Malaysia is one of the biggest producers of ketum worldwide, and we also have one of the biggest user base.

Perhaps the government should reconsider before making a decision that will affect millions of lives, and more importantly, detrimental to their quality of life.