Newly appointed Health Secretary Francisco Duque III is cautious when asked about his stand regarding the legalization of medical marijuana. He would rather leave the matter to policymakers, referring to congressmen and senators. “It’s really up to them,” he stressed. The Department of Health, he assured, will be there to implement the law.

Secretary Duque offered that he supported the use of marijuana for medical purposes provided it is for “limited application” and more importantly, done under a “very strict research setting.”

Like the experts from the University of the Philippines-Manila who are part of the Technical Working Group (TWG) tasked to study the proposed measure, the Health chief agreed there was really no need for a law, citing national policies and mechanisms were already in place so people can access cannabis for very narrow applications.

Further, he emphasized that legalizing medical marijuana should specifically be for ‘compassionate use’ meaning it should only be given to patients who have found no relief from conventional treatment modalities.

He said in a television interview that while cannabis may be listed as a prohibited drug under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, it also contains provisions for cases when people need it for medical purposes and specifically states access should not be denied.

Dr Ivan Escartin of the Dangerous Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program said that in 2014, the Dangerous Drugs Board issued Regulation No. One, which states under Section 14, that the Board permits the laboratory use, scientific research and programmes for marijuana’s medical use.

Meanwhile, the Health chief pointed out that cannabis cannot be consumed in its raw, plant form or in herbal form. Rather, it must undergo processing subjected to very strict standards to ensure active ingredients are extracted properly and safely.

The worry is that if consumed in a non-pharmaceutical form, it may be subjected to abuse or addiction, and this is where he believes the risk is more profound.

It is for this very reason why he favors a strict research setting in case medical marijuana becomes legal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Secretary Duque said, is primarily tasked to oversee that processing adheres to strict guidelines and that its distribution is controlled.

He conceded there was potential in marijuana that can be helpful for patients with certain medical conditions, but stressed this was not curative and that its primary use was to treat symptoms, specifically pain in certain types of cancer, pain and spasms in multiple sclerosis, alleviate anorexia in cancer therapy and in some cases of HIV/AIDS.

Moreover, he added that there are provisions on the compassionate use of medical cannabis under the FDA, subject to strict compliance to the agency’s standards, rules and regulations, and must satisfy requirements for safety, efficacy, and quality, and that all these must be “done in the context of research.”

The TWG on the medical cannabis legalization is opposing the measure on grounds that there was actually limited evidence on the efficacy, and these were outweighed by evidence regarding its harmful effects.

Acute cannabis use, the group said, can lead to increased risk for motor vehicular accidents if driving under the influence. Chronic use, meanwhile, can lead to impairment of cognition and neuro-development.

Chronic users are also at risk for psychosis, dependence, addiction and substance abuse.

The DOH has similarly convened a TWG comprised of the FDA, the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) and the department’s Health Facilities Regulation Bureau to study the merits of the proposed bill legalizing medical marijuana. MIMS

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