Miss Universe win reopens medical marijuana debate; Duque says 'not so fast'

Trishia Billones, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 20 2018 01:34 PM | Updated as of Dec 20 2018 02:20 PM

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MANILA - Miss Universe Catriona Gray's support for medical use of marijuana has reopened the debate on legalizing cannabis in the Philippines but has come across opposition from the country's health chief. 

Gray, representing the Philippines, told the Miss Universe pageant that she backs the legalization of marijuana for "medical use but not so for recreational use."

The statement has won praise from one party-list lawmaker while the President's spokesman said President Duterte will support any bill that will seek the legalization of medical marijuana.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque, however, said there is a dearth of information on the possible benefits of medical marijuana, as claimed by its proponents, compared to its risks. 

"We have a scarcity of information about the benefits as claimed versus the potential risks. At the end of the day, you have to weigh what are the benefits, health or medicinal benefits and do these benefits actually outweigh the potential risks," he told ANC's Headstart.

Some literature, he said, showed that some processed products from marijuana are "effective" for chronic pain, for neuropathic pain, for spasticity from Multiple Sclerosis, and in alleviating the suffering of patients from nausea and vomiting secondary to chemotherapy.

However, there are several potential risks noted in its use, such as distance perception, which can lead to motor vehicular accidents. It can also trigger some forms of psychosis, like schizophrenia, and can lead to addiction and abuse, said Duque.

"We cannot afford to be gung-ho about this and then later on, we find out that the danger is so much more than the putative benefits," he said.

Duque noted that the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 and a separate resolution by the Dangerous Drugs Board provide an opening for the use of medical marijuana "under specific circumstances," but physicians applying are "quite few," according to the Food and Drugs Administration.

"Baka di mo mabilang sa daliri ng kamay, so I don't understand where that claim that there is a strong demand for it is coming from," he said.

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From 2017-2018, the FDA only received 3 applications for cannabis oil but all three were turned down due to incomplete requirements. Cannabis oil is not available commercially in the Philippines. 

"These drugs must be registered from the country of origin. The request must be specific. For example, if 40 tablets are needed, that must be included in the prescription," Katherine Austria-Lock, FDA Center for Drugs Regulation and Research Head, said in an interview. 

In the interview, Duque warned the use of medical marijuana without further study might lead to use of other illegal substances on the perception that they are safe. 

"It can be a gateway to more drug addiction and abuse of medical cannabis per se and addiction to cannabis in its raw form. [It] might lead to a higher or more potent form of drug, shabu...It goes against the grain of our fight against illegal drugs," he said. 

He also doubts President Duterte is serious about signing a bill legalizing medical marijuana, saying he will only believe it if the Duterte tells him personally. 

"That's what I call levity. It was said in jest. I don't think he was serious about it. So unless he calls for me and really sit down and discuss it, then [I will] consider his position as rather serious and ought to be given an evidence-based recommendation," he said.