The American waiting at the door of death row in a Malaysian prison was not dealing drugs when he was arrested with a pound of marijuana nearly a year ago. He was toting around his medicine.

That is the controversial defense that Kerry Wiley's lawyer may use to keep Wiley from being hanged. The "medicinal purposes" defense has worked only three times in the United States. But Wiley is in a country that prides itself on enforcing the harshest drug laws in the world -- a country that stamps on its entry permits, "Death for drug traffickers."

Wiley was arrested Nov. 4, 1989, at a home in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Police seized 1.1 pounds of "ganja." In Malaysia, possession of more than seven ounces carries a mandatory death penalty.

As we reported last month, Wiley, 35, does not fit the profile of a drug dealer. He is a computer scientist and former lecturer in California and Hawaii. He was arrested in the home of his mother's friend -- a Malaysian teacher whom his mother met at a teachers' conference. Both of Wiley's parents are college professors.

If Wiley is convicted, he would be a first-time offender guilty of a crime that would likely get him a suspended sentence in the United States.

The stakes are higher in Malaysia, so Wiley has a celebrated lawyer in his corner -- former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark. He and a doctor who has reviewed Wiley's medical records told our associate Jim Lynch about Wiley's past, much of which is likely to be repeated in the Malaysian court if Clark uses the medicinal defense. At the age of 12, Wiley fell off a cliff while climbing San Jacinto Peak in California. He plummeted 60 feet and waited in semiconsciousness for hours before he was rescued.

The fall damaged Wiley's nerves and left him with chronic pain, arthritis and muscle spasms. He endured painkiller after painkiller, but nothing worked. Clark says that ironically Wiley "developed an aversion for drugs."

Clark refused to say outright that Wiley had turned to marijuana when prescription drugs failed him. But Clark told us he may present evidence that thousands of people medicate themselves with marijuana when prescription drugs fail. Physician Lester Grinspoon, who is prepared to testify at Wiley's trial, told us that marijuana has become a "treatment of choice for the kind of pain Wiley suffers." Grinspoon is the editor of "Harvard Mental Health."

Clark is quick to note that it has yet to be proved that the marijuana belonged to Wiley in the first place. But he is prepared to fall back on the medicinal defense. Clark, the attorney general under Lyndon B. Johnson, hopes the argument will touch at least one person, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a medical doctor himself.

As yet, Malaysia has shown no signs of softening the law for Wiley or anyone else. As Mahathir told us, "We think {drug dealers} are killers, because so many of these young boys who have taken these drugs are dying or dead. It's murder."

Wiley is scheduled to tell his side of the story in a Malaysian court next month.