Malaysia is mulling over a plan to legalize medicinal cannabis after widespread protests against a death penalty that was handed out to a man supplying it.

Muhammad Lukman Mohamad was sentenced to death by hanging after admitting he sold cannabis oil to patients suffering from cancer and leukemia. A change.org petition calling for him to be free has now garnered more than 60,000 signatures and the outcry has inspired the Malaysian government to consider changing the law.

The turning point came when Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, came to the defense of the condemned 29-year-old. He said the sentence should be reviewed and that has jolted the cabinet into action. It held informal talks this week and Xavier Jayakumar, the minister for land, water, and natural resources is spearheading the scheme.

He admitted that it will take encouragement and convincing to win over conservative forces in the country, but he said: “My own personal view is that if it’s got medicinal value, then it can be a controlled item that can be used by Ministry of Health for prescription purposes.”

Under Malaysian legislation, anyone arrested with seven ounces (200g) or more of cannabis is presumed to be trafficking, and this carries a mandatory death penalty.

This would represent an important first step in softening the approach to cannabis in Southeast Asia, where suppliers are treated very harshly. Countries like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia sentence drug traffickers to death, and they make little distinction between cannabis and drugs like cocaine and heroin. Under Malaysian legislation, anyone arrested with seven ounces (200g) or more of cannabis is presumed to be trafficking, and this carries a mandatory death penalty.

The country will have to wrestle with the complexities of differentiating recreational and medicinal cannabis in its legislation. Xavier also noted that the Malaysian Ministry of Health is skeptical regarding the medicinal value of cannabis, which could present a stumbling block. Yet he points to the examples of countries like Australia and Germany, where cannabis is permitted for medicinal use, as proof that it can work.

“It’s already been done in certain countries,” he said. “If it’s going to be used for medicinal purposes, it can be used. Not for social purposes, for medicinal purposes, yes, it should be allowed to be used.”

If Xavier is successful in his bid, it could start a domino effect in the region. Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health is attempting to convince the government to approve a study of marijuana with a view to regulating it for medicinal purposes.

It’s worried that it has been left behind by Canada as a world leader in cannabis production and it wants to kickstart its economy by legalizing cultivation for exports and domestic sales.