Is the PH ready for the medical marijuana bill?

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When Rep. Rodolfo Albano III filed House Bill 4477, or “The Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana,” in May 2014, some people heaved a high of relief. Could the Philippines finally be opening its mind, and moving forward, along with the rest of the world?

HB 4477 recognizes the plant’s many medicinal benefits and aims to “provide accessible, affordable, safe medical cannabis to qualifying patients with debilitating medical condition as certified by medical doctors and approved by the Medical Cannabis Regulatory Authority. This bill also provides for the control measures and regulation on the medical use of Cannabis to ensure patient’s safety and for effective and efficient implementation of this Act.”

Filed in May 2014, HB 4477 now enjoys 66 supporters in Congress, including House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora.

It is expected to have a second reading when Congress resumes next month. Some of the bill’s lobbyists, like Representative Leah Paquiz of Ang Nars Partylist, are hopeful that this is just a zygote step toward legalizing cannabis for medical use.

But it requires more than just a majority’s signature for the bill to get passed. “We’re going to need a paradigm shift,” says her daughter and chief of staff Atty Faye Pacquiz.

Should HB 4477 get passed into law, it will certainly shake up the 2002 Dangerous Drugs Act, which files marijuana in the same group as shabu, cocaine, and other chemical substances that pro-doobie people point out are way more harmful than the precious organic plant they are advocating.

This early there is already strong opposition from 10 medical organizations — the Philippine Medical Association, Philippine College of Physicians, Pain Society of the Philippines, the Philippine Psychiatric Association, the Philippine League for Epilepsy, Child Neurology Society of the Philippines, Group of Addiciton Psychiatry of the Philippines, Philippine Society of Clinical and Occupational Toxicology, and the UP-PGH National Poison Management and Control Center.

“The bill is tricky,” says Undersecretary Benjamin Reyes of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB). “What they say in the newspapers is that it’s for the medical use of marijuana. But if you read the bill, it stipulates there that you can use it, but not it public. That’s recreational use already, that’s not medical. That’s [one of its many] problems.”

Under HB 4477, “cannabis refers to every kind, class, genus, specie of the Cannibis Sativa L., Cannabis Americana, hashish, bhang, guaza, churrus, ganjab and embraces every kind, class and character of marijuana, whether dried or fresh and flowering, flowering or fruiting tops, or any part or portion of the plant and seeds thereof, and all its geographic varieties, whether as a reefer, resin, extract, tincture or in any form whatsoever.”

Therein lies the problem, says Undersecretary Reyes. “They are advocating for the raw form of plant to be smoked, so the problem there is dosage. You don’t know how many active components are inside the leaf. They need to synthesize the plant first,” he says.

He also fears that this could be a gateway bill to legalize other drugs. “Why stop at marijuana,” he asks.

He adds that if the bill is passed, it will require putting in place a system for a regulatory board. “Ngayong illegal siya, hirap na hirap na tayo, what more if you legalize it? Sure, if you legalize, you can now monitor. But it doesn’t end there. You will now have to provide services for all those users. I personally feel like our regulatory and support systems are not mature enough yet.”

If it’s just compassionate use of marijuana it’s already in place in the 2002 Dangerous Drugs Act. “Compassionate, medical use has been there since Flavier’s time, and it is still enforced up to now,” he says. “All they need to do is write the board and we’ll help facilitate in bringing the medicines from abroad. We’ve told advocates this already, many times we told them. But not one has written to us.”

The pro-HB 4477 camp argues, however, that while compassionate use is already in place, it assumes the patient has the time and money to spend. “There’s no medicine here, and kung meron man, it’s so expensive. Ano, pupunta pa ako ng US just to buy the medicines I need,” says Rep Paquiz.

“The rate of cancer now, it strikes 20 and 30 year olds. They still don’t have money [that cancer treatments require]. And it strikes them at advanced levels already. So we also have to move according to the times,” says Atty Paquiz.

HB 4477 lists the debilitating medical conditions that are qualified for medical marijuana, which includes cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, HIV+, hepaptics C, Crohn’s and Alzeihemer’s disease and multiple sceloris, to mention a few.

Patients and doctors will be required to register for an ID, which still needs to be verified. Medical Cannabis Compassionate Centers and Safety Compliance Facilities will be set up. “Everything will be regulated, even farming,” says Atty Paquiz.

The bill, she says, aims to regulate the use of marijuana, which currently ranks as the second-most used drug in the country according to DDB and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

“It’s a fact that we should face. It’s readily available, not hard to find. It’s natural, and people know where to get it. The problem is already here, so we should bring in the solution. If you’ll read the bill without judgment, you will see very stiff regulations are still in place. It doesn’t decriminalize marijuana because if you are caught with illegal possession, or with a fake ID, you should and will be penalized.”

The bill reeks of hard work, most especially for DDB, but Paquiz thinks “we need to start somewhere. Kung regulation lang naman ang po-problemahin, eh di ayusin nila. Paano na lang yung mga batang may sakit at nangangailangan? Bantayan nila.”

HB 4477 supporters agree the bill is not without fault, including overlooking DDB’s role. But the group is also working hard to correct it. “We are having continuous consultations to identify these problems. We are also seeking help from medical practitioners because we aim for the bill to be for the greater good.” They are also inviting experts from abroad to help in the research because locally, none has been made.

Do they expect it to be passed? Well, they’re expecting more minds to be opened. “What this bill is doing now is raising awareness,” says Atty Paquiz. Maybe marijuana isn’t as evil as we think it to be — there are medicinal benefits to this plant and people should start recognizing it. “We have to start somewhere. Information needs to be disseminated. Otherwise, you will never start.”

Is the Philippines ready? “It’s not a question if we are ready,” she says. “It’s more about not knowing until we try. If it doesn’t get passed, then we try again.”

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