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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Medicinal cannabis legalization: High time for the Philippines

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“Sen. Padilla’s SB 230 will grant access to medicinal cannabis as a compassionate alternative means of medical treatment for a host of debilitating conditions”

I have to admit, my reaction to the election of yet another celebrity, this time actor Robin Padilla, to the Philippine Senate last May was the typical cynical “Only in the Philippines!” comment.

Filipino voters have quite the reputation, after all, when it comes to recycling showbiz has-beens into shiny politicians, so nothing new there.

But just as soon as he took office, the freshly-minted senator authored a bill proposing the legalization of the medical use of cannabis in the Philippines.

What a way to announce one’s arrival in the Legislature!

Suddenly, Robin, er Sen. Robinhood Padilla, has my attention. And in a non-cynical way.

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My ears perk up when someone talks about cannabis.

For almost six years now, I have lived in the cannabis universe as a regulator in California’s capital city, Sacramento.

To hear about an effort to make cannabis legal in the Philippines, whose disastrous war on drugs is still fresh in people’s memory, was difficult to fathom.

But at the same time, intriguing, if not downright exciting.

Sen. Padilla’s SB 230 will grant access to medicinal cannabis as a compassionate alternative means of medical treatment for a host of debilitating conditions.

The bill is now awaiting hearing before the Senate Committee of Health.

I support this bill for many reasons, foremost of which is for the positive impact cannabis would create on patients suffering from a variety of ailments – from rheumatoid arthritis to the pain in the last stages of cancer.

In the course of my job, one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences I’ve had was the opportunity to speak with cannabis patients or their loved ones and caregivers, and to hear their stories of how cannabis changed their lives.

We often only read about cannabis being an effective alternative treatment for insomnia, migraines and other chronic pains.

But patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), Multiplesclerosis or MS and severe epileptic seizures tell a more profound story of how cannabis became THE game changer that allowed them to participate in daily life again.

There is no shortage of literature, studies and testimonials out there supporting the healing effects of cannabis for a list of ailments that only keep getting longer with research.

So it should come as no surprise that it is now accepted as medicine in dozens of countries around the world.

In 1996, California became the birthplace of the medical use of cannabis in the United States when voters passed Prop. 215 or Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

Since then, four-fifths of the states have also legalized medical cannabis or have adopted some form of medicinal cannabis law.

Today, the curative effects of cannabis are supported by four million patients across the US.

Given, the number of patients are anecdotal due to the irony that while most Americans now see cannabis as a medicinal plant with countless health benefits, as a Schedule 1 Drug, it is still Federally illegal and therefore not backed by Federal research. But let’s save that for another piece.

Opponents of legalization in the Philippines contend that with or without this legislation (or any other similar proposals past or present), patients can submit a request for a Compassionate Permit under RA 9165, to use a controlled substance such as cannabis, to treat certain medical conditions.

True! However, it should be emphasized that not only is the permit process complicated, but the real issue is access to cannabis after the permit is granted. Cannabis is not legally available in the Philippines, so patients who hold a Compassionate Permit will either have to import it at an exorbitant cost, or purchase it illegally, from the black market.

What this bill will do is create an inter-agency framework for safe and legal access to medical cannabis for qualified patients.

It will involve the Department of Health, the Food and Drugs Authority, the Narcotic Drugs Board (DDB) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

It will also create a new agency, the Medical Cannabis Compassionate Center overseeing the facilities where qualified patients can access medical cannabis.

Most importantly, with this proposed regulatory structure, cannabis, which will be made available in the form of pills, will be cultivated and manufactured in the Philippines. But unlike in the US, cannabis will be produced by pharmaceutical companies.

I’m still on the fence on that aspect and how the long-term economics will play out, but in the short term, having the pharmaceutical industry a part of the equation makes the proposal a less bitter pill to swallow (no pun intended) for some of our lawmakers and skeptics.

As a policy wonk, I’m a big proponent of government oversight.

Also, with my experience in the cannabis realm, I definitely support the need to regulate a product that is extremely prone to abuse, diversion to the black market, involves a ridiculous amount of cash and has potential ties to a host of illegal activities that feed the underground economy.

I won’t get into the weeds (pun intended) of what the proposed regulatory structure would look like, as the bill, in all likelihood, will go through several iterations in the bicameral process – assuming it gains some traction in the early stages.

It should be noted that a counterpart of this bill HB 241 by Rep. Antonio “Tonypet” Albano is also pending in the House of Representatives.

The congressman has also championed legalization of medical cannabis in the previous Congress but unfortunately, the legislation did not pass.

In addition, at least five other pro-cannabis bills (HB 243, HB 2007, HB 4208, HB 4638 and HB 4866) are also pending in the lower house and have yet to be heard at committee level.

Above and beyond SB 230 and the six other pending cannabis-related bills, I believe it is high time (no pun intended) that the Philippines take cannabis (again, no pun intended) seriously and focus on the basic facts that has now been embraced by a growing list of countries, including most recently, our neighbor in the region, Thailand.

By basic facts, I’m referring to the dumbed-down, oversimplified version of the scientific truth that the cannabis plant can heal because the human body’s endocannabinoid system and the cannabis plant works like a lock and key: our body’s endocannabinoid system (lock) responds to the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant (key). How about another basic fact that no person has ever died from cannabis overdose?

Simply put, if regulated properly, cannabis can save lives.

But the journey to legalization is never as simple as that.

Not for cannabis, anyway.

Throughout history, cannabis has often been a focal point in politics and associated with awkward conversations around the war on drugs, racism, social injustice, disenfranchisement and poverty.

And in the heat of the ugly debates, it is the patients, already saddled with health woes, who ultimately end up paying the price.

I predict a long and difficult journey ahead with a lot of heavy lift, starting with changing our leaders’ mindset about a plant that has so long been viewed with negativity.

Where do we even begin?

But cliche as it sounds, every difficult endeavor starts with one important step…and in this case also a strong political will.

SB 230 is a step in the right direction that I now find myself doing something I never thought I would do five months ago – rooting for Sen. Padilla.

(Zarah Uytingban Cruz is a Program Specialist for the City of Sacramento Office of Cannabis Management and specializes in policy development and licensing regulations since 2017. She has over 20 years of State (of California) and local government experience under her belt in the areas of public policy, inter-government relations and public information. She can be reached by email at (Author’s Note: the views expressed in this piece are purely the author’s and do not represent the position of the City of Sacramento on the topic.)

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