In an apparent drastic change of heart, the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has reversed his prior stance on medical marijuana.

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Duterte has made vague statements alluding to his support of marijuana being legal for medical use, even joking about using cannabis himself to stay awake during meetings. However, based on his most recent statements, enthusiasm directed towards his apparent support for medical cannabis appears to have been unfounded.

In 2016, shortly after taking office, President Duterte launched an internationally condemned war on drugs, conducting highly controversial anti-drug operations and killing over 30 drug users in one day alone. Students and teachers of public and private high schools in the Philippines have even been forced to endure mandatory random drug testing. Filipino cannabis users risk facing serious punishment if caught with or under the influence of marijuana. Until its ban in 2006, those charged with drug possession or distribution in the Philippines even faced the death penalty.

President Duterte delivering a speech. TOTO LOZANO / Presidential Photo

In December of 2018, officials representing his administration announced that President Duterte would support a measure to legalize medical cannabis use in the Philippines. According to Salvador Panelo, a Presidential spokesperson, “the president already made a statement that he’s in favor of limited use of marijuana…logically, then he will support…and sign any bill that would be consistent with his stand [on medical marijuana].”

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This announcement came following a political statement made by Filipina-Australian model, Catriona Gray, winner of Miss Universe 2018. When asked whether she supported medical marijuana, Gray said that she supported “medical use but not so for the recreational use of the plant.”

During his 2016 campaign, President Duterte said, “It’s effective. I will not deprive Filipinos of the benefits of medicinal marijuana, but I must have a definition of what it is and it must be approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration].”

Philippines Flag on cannabis background. Drug policy. Legalization of marijuana IStock / PromesaArtStudio.

Legislation to make medical marijuana legal in the Philippines has even been introduced country’s House of Representatives. If made into law, House Bill 6517, also known as the Philippine Passionate Medical Cannabis Act, would legalize cannabis use for Filipino citizens with qualifying conditions, giving patients access to much-needed medicine and, in theory, allowing them some form of protection from governmental prosecution. The bill was approved by the House of Representatives in 2017.

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As of this month, President Duterte appears to have radically changed his position on the issue of medical cannabis.

At a recent campaign rally held in Victorias City for the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), the Philippines prominent ruling political party, President Duterte expressed his strong disapproval of medical cannabis, saying, “That’s a plant, marijuana. They are cultivated. They’ll give you an excuse to harvest and say its medicinal. Everything will be medicinal, that would be an excuse. I did not agree to it. Not in my time. Some other President, maybe.”

Moreover, Duterte disregarded the substantial amount of research now existing supporting the benefits of medical cannabis, saying instead, “I am ignorant of that kind of research. I must admit I do not read it.”