The Senate of the Philippines began its hearing on a bill last week that would legalize the use and research of medical marijuana after the measure passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming approval in late January.
House Bill 6517, also known as the Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, would allow the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to license doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients who are experiencing a chronic or debilitating medical condition, such as seizures, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.
If the bill is signed into law, patients would have access to their prescribed marijuana through the creation of Medical Cannabis Compassionate Centers and accredited hospitals. The law would also establish a Medical Cannabis Research and Safety Compliance Facility to test medical cannabis and ensure safe and effective use.
And surprisingly, President Rodrigo Duterte—known internationally for his hardline crackdown on illegal substances—has already backed the measure.
Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act
Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug in the Philippines, but some politicians and advocates have been working for years in support of legalizing medical marijuana.
The measure was initially introduced in 2014 but failed in Congress the first time around. Then, Rep. Rodolfo Albano III introduced the legislation again in 2016, one day before Duterte launched his war on drugs campaign.
More than two years later, on the measure’s third and final reading in the House, one hundred sixty-three representatives voted in favor of the bill, five voted against it and three abstained.
“I really believe in medical cannabis. As you know, I have my problem here and when I’m in a country that allows it, I put a pain patch, but here in the Philippines, I cannot do it,” House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who suffers from multilevel cervical spondylosis, told reporters in January. She co-authored the bill because she believes it could help her and others, she added.
Now, the Senate Committee on Health and Demography is in the process of hearing the bill. This is the first of three readings the bill would need to pass the Senate in order to make it to the final step: the president’s signature.
“Since 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,” Presidential spokesperson, Salvador Panelo said in a palace press briefing in 2018.
Duterte also made headlines in late 2018 when he said during a speech that he used marijuana to stay awake when traveling out of the country. Later, he claimed he was only joking.
Panelo is also confident the bill will pass in the Senate, as he told Philstar the Senate will not need to pass a separate version of the bill because he expects the support of the legislation as is.
But the response to the bill is not all supportive. The University of the Philippines Manila released a statement strongly opposing the legislation.
“We current limited evidence on the efficacy of medical cannabis, the strong evidence on its harmful effects, as well as its negative health impact in the face of increasing cannabis potency makes legalization of medical cannabis in the country a serious threat to public health,” the UP statement reads.
And still, others are not certain the bill is necessary.
“We need to weigh in on the need to pass a new law on this, but I am considering amendments to the current laws, and rules and regulations, to make it accessible to those who are really suffering,” Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, chair of the Senate health committee, told Philstar after the Senate reading.
History of Marijuana in the Philippines
It’s no secret President Duterte is executing a bloody campaign against Filipinos to abolish illegal drug use in the country.
The official death toll, from July 2016 through Nov. 2018 is more than 5,000, according to data from the PDEA. Human rights groups, on the other hand, say the number could be as high as 12,000.
Cannabis is the second most-used illegal drug, after Methamphetamine, or as Filipinos call it, “shabu.” According to data released by the PDEA, 186 marijuana plantations sites—which includes 869,682 marijuana plants, 136,510 marijuana seedlings, 215 pounds of marijuana stalks, four pounds of marijuana seeds and four pounds of hashish worth more than $3.8 million were destroyed—a 589 percent hike from sites destroyed in 2017.
Duterte established drug-free workplace policies in all government offices, which authorizes drug tests for elected officials and appointive public officers.
Though his administration has established new community-based treatment and rehabilitation programs, marijuana users still face hefty fines or much worse.
The current law states the punishment is life imprisonment or a fine for the importation, sale, maintenance of a den, dive or resort, manufacture, use, and cultivation of marijuana and marijuana-related products.
The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 classified marijuana as illegal in the Philippines and created the Dangerous Drugs Board. This newly-created board was granted legal power over drug-related cases. At this time, marijuana was the most popular illegal drug and the government estimated 20,000 drug users in the country.
The Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 eventually repealed the prior law, and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency was created to implement the policies made by the Dangerous Drugs Board. The new law also allocated resources to create new support programs and initiatives.
However, the Dangerous Drugs Act states “people with legitimate medical needs are not prevented from being treated with adequate amounts of appropriate medications, which include the use of dangerous drugs.” This has been cited by skeptics, including Ejercito, as a loophole or opportunity to amend current legislation rather than signing a new bill into law.
The bill still remains in its first of three hearings in the Senate of the Philippines. The Committee on Health and Demography will study the bill and either submit it to the Committee on Rules or decide to table it.
“I authored that bill because I believe that it can help me and many other people but there was a lot of objection to the bill from the House and from the Senate,” Speaker Macapagal-Arroyo told reporters. “That’s why we are just letting the legislative process take its course.”