Can the Philippines Legalize Medical Marijuana Despite Duterte’s Violent Drug Crackdown?

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The Philippines is a country rich in history and cultural significance, but President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crackdown on drug offenders has created a deep divide in the international community.

“It's effective. I will not deprive Filipinos of the benefits of medicinal marijuana.”
Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines

Duterte won the Philippine presidential election on May 9, 2016, with 39% of the votes in his favor, running on a campaign promise to reduce crime–by killing tens of thousands of criminals. Indeed, after the election, he stuck to his word, authorizing law enforcement and civilians alike to kill anyone even suspected of being a drug dealer.

As of April 2017, there have been at least 7,000 recorded deaths of people accused of using or selling drugs. The main culprit behind the brutal extrajudicial killings is shabu, or methamphetamine.

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Amid the chaos, during this legislative session a bill was introduced in the House to legalize cannabis for medical use. While the country’s president orders the deaths of thousands of suspected drug users, the government is also actively trying to legalize medical marijuana.

The Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act

House Bill 180 is the successor to the former medical cannabis bill, House Bill 4477, known as the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act that was filed during the 16th Congress while former President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, was still in office. The bill, with 70 coauthors signed on, only made as far as the House Committee on Health before dying.

The bill had to be refiled under Duterte’s administration as “The Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act,” by the original author, Isabela Representative Congressman Rodito Albano III.

Shockingly, Duterte expressed support for the bill during his 2016 campaign, saying,“It’s effective. I will not deprive Filipinos of the benefits of medicinal marijuana.”

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We reached out to Kimmi del Prado of the Philippine Compassionate Society to learn more about cannabis in the Philippines and what kind of legislative change the country may see in the near future.

“I’ve never encountered any plant as controversial as cannabis,” Del Prado tells Leafly. “I did my fair share of research back in college to convince myself that cannabis has been wrongly placed in history as a dangerous drug.”

“And then I became a mom,” she adds. Del Prado explains the reasons behind her passion for medical cannabis legalization. “As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to see your child suffer. You are helpless as you see your kid in pain. It gave me a big wake up call. I get impatient with my kids when it’s one of ‘those days.’ But my kids are ‘normal,’ they’re healthy. I am grateful that my kids are, but there are others who are not as fortunate as me.”

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Fostering a Cannabis Community in the Philippines

It was during this time that del Prado discovered an international cannabis community for parents who support cannabis. She learned of Moms for Marijuana International, and founded the first local chapter in the Philippines as the chapter leader, establishing its Facebook page, coincidentally, on April 20, 2013.

“As a chapter leader, my task was to check what’s going on in the local cannabis community,” Del Prado says. “I discovered the community page where I met a couple who were looking for cannabis for their daughter. Imagine, in the middle of exchanges about getting high, growing, and other personal experiences, there was this post from a dad asking about cannabis; where to buy, how to process.”

“I got in touch with the dad to ask permission if I could share their story on Facebook. I didn’t know how else to help Jun and Myca and their daughter Moon Jaden,” she explains. The daughter’s name was Moon Jaden, MJ for short. “I posted their story on the Facebook page of Philippine Moms for Marijuana. I wanted people to go straight to them for any kind of help they can offer.”

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Under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, marijuana remains illegal, classified as a dangerous drug. Possession is punishable by 6 to 12 years imprisonment, and a fine ranging from 50,000 pesos (about $1,000 USD) to 200,000 pesos (about $4,000 USD).

Moon Jaden Lugtu-Yutuc suffered from a rare form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome. Without any legal access to cannabis, her parents, Myca and Jun Yutuc, had to search the black market for suppliers. When a typhoon wiped out cannabis crops in the Philippines, MJ died before accessing cannabis for treatment.

“We lost Moon Jaden,” del Prado laments. “But her death was symbolic. It created a community of mostly parents, advocating for medical cannabis. One of my greatest achievement to date is bringing together advocates from all walks of life, and slowly breaking the stigma and prejudice against cannabis.”

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The Future of Cannabis in the Philippines

The current war on drugs in the Philippines generally targets drug users and dealers connected to shabu, or methamphetamine, but cannabis users are not immune to the government-sanctioned violence. Law enforcement has been given broad orders to shoot anyone resisting arrest and anyone suspected of being a drug user. As del Prado puts it, “In the absence of due process, how will we know whether they were guilty or not?”

More often than not, cannabis users fearful for their lives turn themselves into their local governments to avoid unwarranted arrests or shootings. Officials make them sign a statement saying they won’t do drugs again and they will usually be released.

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Cannabis, affectionately known as “toot-toot” by older generations, is widely used by indigenous Filipino tribes in rituals and traditional medicine and is mostly cultivated in the mountainous regions of Luzon and Mindanao. These areas are fertile and secluded, making them an ideal spot for discreet cannabis cultivation. There’s also an underground network of cannabis producers who provide cannabis to Filipinos suffering from various medical conditions, from cancer to arthritis to Dravet Syndrome.

Those who distribute cannabis, however, still face a great risk, particularly in urban areas such as Manila, where many of the drug-related arrests, raids, and extrajudicial killings occur.

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House Bill 180 (and What It Means)

“I’ve never encountered any plant as controversial as cannabis.”
Kimmi del Prado, Phillippine Compassionate Society

House Bill 180 is incredibly thorough. If the bill were to pass, it would establish a system of medical cannabis compassionate centers to distribute up to a one-month supply to registered medical cannabis patients. The patients would have the same medical protections as those afforded to individuals using prescribed pharmaceutical medication. This includes protection from discrimination as it pertains to employment, housing, education, and even child custody arrangements.

Additionally, if passed, the bill would authorize the National Institutes of Health to conduct medical research on the uses and benefits of cannabis. It would also establish an oversight committee to help implement the new program, and a new branch of the government to help enforce regulations.

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In order to qualify, patients must be diagnosed with one or more of the following conditions by a certifying physician:

  • Cancer
  • Glaucoma
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord, with intractable spasticity
  • Epilepsy
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Admission into hospice
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders

House Bill 180 already passed through the House in April 2017. To date, it has 50 coauthors, but still sits in the Committee on Health, awaiting consideration and debate. The legislative session recently reconvened, and with Duterte’s allies holding a majority in Congress, the bill could easily be passed. Will it?