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Philippines: Cannabis bills likely to be indefinitely postponed

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Editha R Hechanova of Hechanova & Co Inc explains the hurdles that are preventing Filipino lawmakers from legalising medical cannabis


Since 2014, lawmakers from the Philippines have been trying to get legislation on medical cannabis passed in Congress and have re-introduced it in the current 18th Congress, with little success so far. The main roadblock is President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial anti-drug policy – popularly called the ‘war on drugs’ – which has attracted criticism from human rights advocates because of the rising number of extra-judicial killings.

In 2017, newspapers quoted Duterte’s spokesman that the former was open to approving bills legalising medical cannabis. This probably inspired the approval on the third and final reading of House Bill (HB) No. 6517 (Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act). Unfortunately, this was blocked by the Senate in 2019 when Duterte changed his tune and declared the opposite in a campaign rally in Negros Occidental. A Business World reporter quoted that Duterte had said “Marijuana - they are cultivated…I’ll give you the excuse to harvest for… they will say it’s medicinal. Everything is medicinal. That would be an excuse. I will not allow it. Not in my time….”

Two house bills pending in Congress on cannabis are HB 6517, re-introduced as HB 279, and HB 3961 (An Act to Establish the Philippines Cannabis Development Authority…).

Both are before the house committee on health for approval. HB 3961, introduced in 2020 by Congressman Luis Raymund Villafuerte, aims at legalising the local production and export of medical marijuana to make it more accessible and cheaper for Filipinos. It also hopes to take advantage of the growing multi-billion dollar industry citing that Singapore, China and Thailand – which already have very strict narcotics law – as producers of medical cannabis or are about to do it, particularly, in the light of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs decision in late 2020 to remove from its list of most dangerous drugs, cannabidiol (CBD), a non-addictive and non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

The Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) is opposing the measure and proposes instead to pass a law that would strengthen the government’s community rehabilitation programmes for drug dependents. The DDB is the policy-making and coordinating agency as well as the national clearing house on all matters pertaining to law enforcement and control of dangerous drugs as well as treatment and rehabilitation of drug dependents.

So far, the DDB and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of CBD for patients afflicted with epilepsy, such as the oral solution Epidiolex for treatment of seizures associated with severe forms of epilepsy. The DDB, however, also admits that parents have complained that medicine containing the cannabis product costs around $25,000 to $30,000 for a one-year prescription, which is quite burdensome.

Critics of the bills argue that no new or additional bills are needed, since under the Republic Act (RA) 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, using medical marijuana for compassionate use for people with terminal illnesses is allowed in the country. Under RA 9165, cannabis is listed as a dangerous drug and the sale, possession, use, importation, manufacturing, cultivation, among others, of which are prohibited and punishable by fine and imprisonment.

Sec. 3 (v) of RA 9165 defines cannabis, or commonly known as ‘marijuana’, ‘Indian hemp’ or by any other names, as “embraces every kind, class, genus, or specie of the plant Cannabis sativa L. including, but not limited to, Cannabis americana, hashish, bhang, guaza, churrus and 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”.

A notable development concerning the drugs law is the landmark decision of Estipona vs Hon Lobrigo (GR No. 226679, August 15 2017), wherein the Supreme Court rendered Section 23 of RA 9165 prohibiting plea-bargaining in drugs cases, as unconstitutional. The decision paved way for the promulgation by the Supreme Court of AM No. 18-03-16-SC on June 4 2019, which allows the accused to plead to a lesser offense and be subject to lower penalties.

The term of President Duterte, who is ineligible for re-election, expires on June 30 2022, and so does the 18th Congress. Is there a glimmer of hope for the passage of any law relating to medical cannabis before the 18th Congress ends? Probably none.

Editha R HechanovaPresident, Hechanova & CoE:

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