KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — The Malaysian government’s approval for the use of cannabis-based products for medical purposes has opened the floodgates for more studies by local researchers on the benefits and potential of drugs such as marijuana.
Bernama understands that several drug addiction experts have already submitted applications to the relevant authorities to carry out research on the use of cannabis to treat certain medical disorders.
The experts Bernama spoke to regarded the turn of events as a new chapter to explore the drug’s potential in medicine, pointing out that they faced a number of hurdles in conducting research in this area previously.
They are also hoping that the government will give the green light for the cultivation of the cannabis plant to facilitate the procurement of cannabis-based products for research and for use in the medical sector.
On November 17, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin told the Dewan Rakyat that applications for the use of cannabis for medical purposes can be submitted to the Drug Control Authority (DCA) for evaluation and registration if there is sufficient scientific evidence for it to be marketed.
Earlier, on November 9, the minister had said that the use of medical marijuana is permissible in Malaysia as it does not violate the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, Poisons Act 1952 or the Sale of Drugs Act 1952.
Director of the Centre for Addiction Sciences at Universiti Malaya Associate Prof Dr Rusdi Abd Rashid told Bernama that local researchers have been trying for a long time to study medical cannabis but have not been able to secure the necessary approval to do so due to the stigma associated with the drug.
“But not all parts of the hemp plant (which belongs to the cannabis genus) can cause addiction. For example, CBD or cannabidiol (one of the active ingredients in the cannabis plant) doesn’t cause addiction or make a person ‘high’.
“In fact, it has potential to be used in autism treatment, and as a painkiller, anti-depressant and for treating those addicted to ganja (another name for marijuana),” he explained.
Scientifically, Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae. Among the species of this genus are Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis.
Cannabis plants produce compounds called cannabinoids. It is understood more than 100 types of cannabinoids can be found in cannabis, most of which are CBD and THC (Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychoactive ingredient.
However, the quantity of active ingredients – CBD and THC – present in the plants differ from species to species. Marijuana (a type of cannabis), for example, has high THC content while hemp does not contain THC but is high in CBD.
In Malaysia, all varieties of cannabis are listed under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 due to their THC content.
Rusdi said it is time society changed its perception of cannabis and realised that it is not entirely dangerous but can, in fact, be used for medical purposes and even for treating people addicted to ganja.
“Once it is authorised by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Authority, patients will need to get the prescription of a doctor to use cannabis. It is not for use arbitrarily,” he said.
He feels Khairy’s openness to the use of cannabis for medical purposes will also open the door for local researchers to carry out studies on kratom, locally known as ketum, which is known for its potential as a pain reliever and to treat substance abuse.
“I feel the (health) minister’s permission will be necessary to facilitate the approval process for research. And, who knows one day Malaysia can be a producer of ketum- and hemp-based medicines,” he added.
However, to get to that stage, the government must consider allowing cannabis to be cultivated in this country.
“It’s better for us to carry out research using products sourced locally. Only then will Malaysia be able to enjoy the economic benefits of being a global supplier of CBD medicines. But to get there, we have to speed things up because, as it is, we are behind other countries such as Thailand,” said Dr Rusdi.
In 2018, Thailand became the first nation in this region to approve the use of cannabis for research and development (R&D) and medicinal purposes.
Commenting on this, Associate Prof Dr Mohamad Aris Mohd Moklas, who is a lecturer at the Department of Human Anatomy at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), said the process of liberalising the use of cannabis continued this year when the Narcotics Control Board of Thailand removed cannabis from the list of Category 5 narcotics to pave the way for wider use of the drug for medical purposes. It also allows the cultivation of cannabis but applications pertaining to this have to go through a strict regulatory process.
“In the past, cannabis used to grow lushly in our country… the potential of this natural plant in the medical field should be fully exploited for the benefit of our nation.
“We want permission to cultivate cannabis for medical purposes. When used as a medicine, it will still be regulated. It appears that our country doesn’t want to take advantage of this plant as it is afraid of creating more addicts. We will not go anywhere if we hold on to this perception,” he added.
Besides Thailand, 30 other countries – including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Denmark – have authorised the use of medical cannabis in controlled doses and prescribed by a doctor or specialist.
Dr Mohamad Aris said while local researchers are keen to do research on medical cannabis now that the government has given the go-ahead, procuring the plant will be difficult as it is not cultivated locally. This will leave them with no choice but to import it, which can be costly.
Relating his own experience as a researcher involved in a preclinical study to link cannabis’ ability to preventing and treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, he said procuring cannabis containing the active ingredient THC was a costly affair.
“My study relating to cannabis and Alzheimer’s started in 2003 whilst I was pursuing my PhD at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. At that time, it was easy to obtain cannabis.
“But it became a problem when I later embarked on my preclinical trials in Malaysia. Imagine, each gramme of cannabis in its pure form with THC costs RM30,000,” he said, hoping that the government will approve the cultivation of cannabis locally but within a strict and clear legal framework to prevent any abuse.
“It will not only be a boost for the medical sector but the nation’s economy as well.”
Dr Mohamad Aris’ study on cannabis and Alzheimer’s is currently still at the preclinical stage where studies done on mice showed the drug’s potential to stimulate the growth of nerve cells, thus indicating that it can be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
“(As of now) I can conclude that cannabis has the potential to treat Alzheimer’s disease as the THC was able to inhibit the degeneration of neurons (nerve cells) and at the same time restore the normal functions of the affected neurons,” he added.
The early positive findings from Mohamad Aris’ study, as well as other research carried out abroad, with regard to cannabis’ potential in the medical field has prompted UPM to submit an application to the Ministry of Home Affairs for a permit to cultivate the plant locally for R&D purposes.
He said several local and foreign companies have indicated their interest to collaborate with UPM if its application for a permit is successful.
“The companies will invest in equipment and greenhouse facilities as these are not cheap. Even acquiring the seeds of the original cannabis plant or mother plant will cost thousands of ringgit,” he said.
He said UPM plans to produce the most optimal cannabis plants, that is, those with high THC, CBD and fibre contents.
According to Mohamad Aris, hemp has a high fibre, as well as CBD, content and that cannabis plant-based fibre has unique characteristics compared with the fibre from other types of plants.
As such, hemp possesses vast economic potential as there is good demand for it in the global market. It also has a short cultivation cycle, thus promising a quick return on investments.
“The potential value of cannabis is substantial in the medical and economic sectors. As far as I’m concerned, with our existing laws and the establishment of a national regulatory body to control and monitor (the cultivation of medical cannabis) stringently, abuse of cannabis will not be an issue,” he added.