Several groups representing doctors and allied medical organizations have expressed strong opposition to a bill seeking to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, saying this was already provided for in the mandate of existing regulatory agencies and authorities.
The groups also raised questions on the safety and effectiveness of marijuana, and said they feared the possible abuse of the drug should people be given wide access to it.
But the Department of Health (DOH) said it was not entirely scrapping the idea, and would review the bill for its response to possible problems of policing and preventing the abuse of the drug.
At a press conference in Quezon City on Friday, the medical groups said they were against House Bill No. 04477 on the compassionate use of cannabis or marijuana since the effectiveness and safety of the drug for certain conditions were still being tested in clinical trials.
Philippine Medical Association (PMA) president Dr. Minerva Calimag added that there are already regulatory agencies that address the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
In a joint statement issued on Saturday, the groups also raised disagreements over the proposed mechanisms meant to enable the compassionate use of marijuana as proposed in the measure.
The groups said having a separate office, the Medical Cannabis Regulatory Agency to regulate the use of a single treatment of the drug, was both expensive and redundant, as the Dangerous Drugs Board and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "are already mandated to undertake the functions proposed for this agency."
They added that having a separate legislation to approve the use of a single drug was inefficient and unnecessary since there are already existing procedures within the FDA to authorize the compassionate use of certain drugs.
"These mechanisms are more rigorous than legislation, and can keep up with changes in science more efficiently," said the groups composed of the PMA, the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP), Child Neurology Society of the Philippines, Group of Addiction Psychiatry of the Philippines, Pain Society of the Philippines, Philippine League against Epilepsy Inc., the Philippine Neurological Association (PNA), Philippine Psychiatric Association, the Philippine Society of Clinical and Occupational Toxicology, UP-PGH National Poison Management and Control Center and the Philippine Society of General Internal Medicine.
The House committee on health is set to hear the bill filed by Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III on Tuesday. The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act was filed in May and had its first reading in June.
Dr. Leonor Cabral-Lim of the PNA said the FDA had already issued an administrative order in 1992 providing terminally ill patients, who need drugs not registered in the Philippines, a mechanism that will allow them to apply for these medications in the country.
"After studying the bill, our conclusion is that we don't need this law," Lim said.
Dr. Rhea Quimpo of the Philippine League Against Epilepsy warned against the possible abuse of the illegal drug. She noted that Colorado, the first state in the United States to legalize the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, had observed a spike in emergency room visits due to accidental ingestion of marijuana that had been put "in brownies and other food."
Psychiatrist Dr. Lou Querubin listed the many adverse effects of marijuana on the body, including addiction, psychosis and short-term memory deficit. She added that 25 to 50 percent of teenagers who used marijuana will develop addiction when they grow older.
In an interview with reporters on the sidelines of the National Health Summit at the Manila Marriott Hotel, Health Secretary Janette Garin said the DOH has to study the measure thoroughly because of the clamor by doctors and affected families.
"There are also questions on how (the drug's medical use) is going to be policed and how to avoid (its) abuse. These are the aspects that we are looking into," said Garin, adding that the agency was also looking at the extent of marijuana use for medical purposes and the specific diseases that the drug could address.
"The (bill's) intention is very good. But we are also looking at the practicability. Is it doable? Are we prepared for it? If we are not prepared, how long will it take us to be prepared and when can it be implemented if ever the bill gets the full support of our legislators?" the health official said.
A consultation with various stakeholders, including doctors opposed to the bill, was also needed as the bill should be tweaked to make it more applicable to the Philippines, Garin said.
Among the challenges ahead was making sure that the illegal drug would be "given only to doctors who are capable of handling it," she added.
Former PCP president Dr. Anthony Leachon scored the proponent of the measure for failing to invite and seek the advice of experts from the medical field in crafting the bill.
"How can we have a law (touching) on medicine if the experts are not involved?" Leachon said. "When the sin tax law was being pushed, the medical society was there (and) that was why it was enacted," he added.