Last year, just a few days after winning the election, President Rodrigo Duterte discussed his stance on medical marijuana in several press interviews. He claimed to be personally supportive of legalizing cannabis for medical reasons. When asked by a TV reporter, Duterte had this to say, “Medicinal marijuana, yes, because it is really an ingredient of modern medicine.”
He continued, “There are medicines being developed, or are now in the market, that contain marijuana for medical purposes.” However, Mr. Duterte also said that he would demand strict regulatory processes to ensure that only those who really need cannabis would have access to it. He is certainly not in favor of legalizing it recreationally.
Two years ago, 24 percent of the House of Representatives, or 70 congressional representatives, endorsed the original bill legalizing medical marijuana. It underwent revision and is now the Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, or simply House Bill No. 180. According to Isabela Rep. Rodito T. Albano III, its endorsement “was the result of intense door-to-door lobbying of PCCS members.”
The Philippine Cannabis Compassion Society
The PCCS, or the Philippine Cannabis Compassion Society, is a group of marijuana advocates and lobbyists, most of whom are either patients themselves or parents of children needing access to medical weed. Group members attended House Bill No. 180’s proceedings, and even assisted with activities organized by Albano’s office to force public debate about the bill’s pros and cons.
In particular, these activities included a multisectoral policy forum, a group meeting with experts, three different forums with medical doctors, several meetings with the Policy Development and Planning Bureau of the Department of Health, and even a policy debate between law students from the University of Santo Tomas and Ateneo de Manila University on the subject of medical cannabis.
Albano also commissioned further policy study on the therapeutic and palliative use of marijuana on different health conditions and their levels of documented effects. A representative of the PCCS spoke to the Inquirer and said that the group was hopeful and positive that Congress would approve the bill. This seems increasingly likely.
The PCCS representative went on to say, “The letters we get from supporters who want to become members increase every day. We do not have a formal membership. What we have, though, is a group page and a group chatroom. Our group is heavily dependent on Facebook because of its convenience and accessibility.”
“We separate supporters with legitimate needs and put them in a group chat where they can communicate directly with other members with similar needs. We have their medical conditions and history on file,” he clarified. Currently, the group has approximately 300 patients who need help getting access to medical marijuana.
Advocacy for Legalization
Jaime Galvez Tan, former Health Secretary, is advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana. Congress invited him to act as a resource speaker on the subject. He gladly accepted. According to Tan, “More people in the Philippines are suffering from epilepsy and other neurological disorders,” which means the need for access could not be greater, and “It is a safer and cheaper way to treat patients.”
Tan says that the most convincing argument for legalizing medical marijuana is the drug’s ability to reduce and manage pain, thereby enhancing a patient’s quality of life. He also said, “It is a better alternative to morphine, which doctors legally prescribe, but makes the patient non-interactive, drowsy, sleepy. The belief that marijuana is addictive is false and obsolete.”
He has a valid point, and he asks some important questions, as well, such as, “Why are we afraid of marijuana when morphine has been used in the hospital for the past 50 years, with no reported abuse, even though it is the one that is addictive?” The medical industry has been treating people with dangerous, addictive drugs that cause all sorts of extra health problems for patients.
Cultivating Medical Marijuana
According to Tan, once medical cannabis is legal, the country can begin by importing it while it drafts provisions and regulations for local cultivation. Marijuana thrives in the Philippines climate, but the government must set strict rules for its planting. He said, “I am personally for local cultivation. We have the raw materials, so I do not see the need for importation. Besides, we can develop our local strains.”
“If we will become first in Asia to allow medical use of cannabis, just think of the myriad benefits. It will open our country to medical tourism, it will open a lot of job opportunities, as well.” The bill has a strong likelihood of passing, particularly if a majority in the House of Representatives considers a clause in Section 16 of the Republic Act No. 9165.
The clause states, “The penalty of life imprisonment to death and a fine ranging from P500,000 to P10,000,000 shall be imposed upon any person who shall plant, cultivate or culture marijuana.” However, there are exceptions in the case of medical laboratories and medical research centers, which cultivate or culture the following, for the following reasons:
- Marijuana, opium poppy and other plants;
- Materials of dangerous drugs for medical experiments and research purposes;
- The creation of new types of medicine.
In these cases, the “Board shall prescribe the necessary implementing guidelines for the proper cultivation, culture, handling, experimentation and disposal of such plants and materials.”
Important Provisions of the Bill
House Bill No. 180 includes a number of pertinent provisions: “The state shall legalize and regulate the medical use of cannabis, which has been confirmed to have beneficial and therapeutic uses to treat chronic or debilitating disease, or if patients have a medical condition that produces one or more of the following:”
- Wasting syndrome, or cachexia,
- Severe and chronic pain,
- Severe nausea,
- Seizures, including but not limited to those characteristic of epilepsy,
- Severe and persistent muscle spasms, including but not limited to those associated with multiple sclerosis.
“The bill mandates the DOH secretary to lead the formulation of regulations to implement the act. The secretary shall also issue registered identification cards to qualified patients after a careful review of their required documents. The bill also provides for the establishment of the Medical Cannabis Compassionate Center, or MCCC, which refers to any entity registered with the DOH and licensed to acquire, possess, cultivate, manufacture, deliver, transfer, transport, sell, supply and dispense cannabis, devices or related supplies and educational materials to registered qualifying patients.”
It continues to say, “The MCCC shall guarantee the appropriate dispensation of cannabis and shall not release more than the prescribed dosage for one month to a registered qualified patient or designated caregiver. It shall maintain internal confidential records of each entry, which includes information on the date and time the cannabis was dispensed, the amount being dispensed, and on whether it was dispensed directly to the patient or to the designated caregiver.”
It is lengthy: “A registered MCCC or Medical Cannabis Safety Compliance Facility shall implement appropriate security measures to deter and prevent the theft of cannabis and unauthorized entrance into areas containing cannabis. Persons who discriminate against qualifying patients and violate confidentiality shall be punished accordingly.” It appears that the Philippines are ready to legalize.