This page was updated on March 18, 2019
PHILIPPINES: Legalization of medical cannabis under House Bill 6517, the so-called Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, was stalled on 11th March when Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte reversed himself on the issue and stated categorically he would not sign the bill during his term in office. The president, ironically, has expressed repeatedly his belief that marijuana is medicinally useful.
Before the president's latest comments on the issue, the goal of medical marijuana legalization in the Philippines seemed on the verge finally of being attained. Legislation towards that end began five years ago.
Marijuana long has been illegal in the Philippines under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, and previously under the Republic Act No. 6425, or the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972.
In 2014, Province Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III filed House Bill no. 4477, which the Philippines' 16th Congress (2013-2016) failed to pass.
A new version of the bill was proposed during the 17th Congress in 2016, Bill No. 180l. On Sept 25, 2017, a House Panel of the 17th Congress approved it. The bill was passed by the Philippines' House of Representatives in a second reading on January 23, 2019 and then again in a third and final reading on Jan 29, 2019.
Still, for the bill to become law, the current Philippines' Senate had to pass it (or reconcile it with their own version). Moreover, Senate passage had to be achieved before the 17th Congress session finishes in June, 2019. It would otherwise have to be re-introduced in the House during the 18th Congress.
If the bill became law, medical marijuana would be accessible only through Medical Cannabis Compassion Centers (MCCC), where registered patients and caregivers could obtain prescribed dosages. At Medical Cannabis Research and Safety Compliance Facilities (MCSCF), on the other hand, medical marijuana research and development would be carried out.
The bill mandates a number of conditions for medical marijuana treatment: cancer; glaucoma; multiple sclerosis; spinal cord damage or intractable spasticity; post-traumatic stress disorder; human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome; rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic autoimmune inflammatory disorders; and admission to hospice care.
Despite President Duterte's assertions to the effect that he sees nothing wrong with medical marijuana, the issue of legalization -- whether for medicine or recreation -- remained divisive. Controversy erupted when the president reiterated his approval in December of last year, saying he would sign any bill for legalization sent to him. Some years ago, he was reported saying: "Medical marijuana, yes, because it is really an ingredient of modern medicine. There are medicines being developed, or are now in the market, that contain marijuana for medical purposes."
The president's seeming volte-face on the issue may not mean a return to prohibition, however, as another view holds medical marijuana is already legal.
Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III thinks use of medical marijuana is already legal, explaining that, under the Republic Act No. 9165 or the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, a provision permits patients to apply for a "compassionate special permit" from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowing unregistered drugs in the country to be used for medication, guidelines for which are already in place.
However, as marijuana is illegal in the Philippines, no registered dispensaries or outlets carry such medication. An October 2017 report from CNN Philippines showed that the FDA received an average of 50 applications monthly for compassionate use special permits and that the FDA had received only one application to import cannabis oil since permits were first issued in 1992.
Nonetheless, the Senate president, who opposes recreational drug use, has consistently maintained that a bill legalizing medical marijuana need not be passed. He fears legalizing it for medical purposes would be twisted by those wanting to commercialize it for recreational use.
"What will we legalize?" he wondered to reporters in December, "It's already legal." "In other words, in the Dangerous Drugs Act, combined with the FDA circular, we have a 'compassionate use' provision," the senator has said. "What we're talking about here -- and what is given a permit by the doctors and the FDA -- is medical cannabis," which he distinguished from "puffed 'medical marijuana'," adding that the latter "means it's already for recreational use."
President Duterte appears now to have adopted the same view, as he noted, in rejecting the Albano-sponsored bill, that it could be used as an excuse to plant marijuana. Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo earlier noted that the President favors controlled, regulated use of marijuana for medical purposes and strictly opposes use as a recreational drug.
Albano said he respects Duterte's decision and will not contest it, citing the constitutional separation of powers. "That's the prerogative of the President," he said, adding that he will not attempt to change President Duterte's mind.
The president's reversal is still more ironic as Philippines' House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a former president and co-sponsor of the bill, on 19 January vouchsafed the effectiveness of medical marijuana, saying she uses it for neck pain whenever she is in a country where it is legal. "I really believe in medical cannabis," she said.
Arroyo suffers from multilevel cervical spondylosis, a general term for age-related wear and tear affecting spinal disks in the neck.
It's no wonder the former president doesn't use it in her own country: under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 penalties for possession of between five and ten grams range from 20 years to life imprisonment, and fines from P400,000 to P500,000. For fewer than five grams, the mandatory minimum sentences are from 12 to 20 years in prison and fines from P300,000 to P400,000.
Cultivation gets a life sentence.
Just possessing drug paraphernalia or equipment subjects violators to from six months to four years in prison and fines from P10,000 to P50,000. Sales convictions can earn the death penalty (commuted automatically to life imprisonment since abolition of the death penalty in 1986).