The potential medicinal benefits of cannabis or marijuana have given a ray of hope to patients with terminal conditions, prompting some countries to allow its use for strictly medical purposes.

In the Philippines, advocates of medical marijuana want it legalized as well through a recent bill filed last May 2014.

House Bill No. 4477 or the “Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act” calls for the legalization of the medical use of marijuana for patients with serious medical conditions such as cancer.

Rodolfo Albano III, House Deputy Minority Leader, said his bill intends “to provide accessible, affordable, and safe medical cannabis to qualifying patients.”

Though the issue on medical cannabis has long been controversial, a fatality in 2013 opened the discussion regarding its usage.

Moon Jaden Yutuc was only a year old when she died from Dravet Syndrome, a form of intractable epilepsy that begins during infancy. Cannabis oil was suggested as a form of potential treatment but Yutuc’s parents were denied permission to use it.

Hits and misses

Even if marijuana is largely known for its addictive effect, numerous studies have confirmed its medical potential.

This led to the formation of the Philippine Cannabis Compassion Society (PCCS), a non-government organization comprised of doctors, patients, and other advocates.

Kimmi del Prado, founder of PCCS, said the bill would benefit patients with terminal conditions and may even avoid incidents similar to Yutuc’s.

“Aside from providing relief for patients, it assures a cheaper alternative to their current line of medication,” del Prado said in an email.

Dr. Gem Mutia, a member of PCCS and part of the doctors taking the lead in support of HB 4477, said marijuana’s potential for abuse is overpowered by its medical benefits.

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“[Marijuana] has recreational effects such as euphoria or an overall sense of well-being, heightened senses and creativity,” he said in an email. “[Other] medical effects [include] appetite stimulation, sedation, and pain-relief.”

He said both the beneficial and adverse effects of marijuana were dose-dependent. Negative effects include dizziness, decreased short-term memory, abnormally-rapid heart rate, and addiction.

However, anti-medical cannabis groups such as the Philippine Medical Association, the Philippine College of Physicians, and the Philippine Neurological Association expressed fears that allowing medical marijuana might only promote abuse.

“We cannot downplay its (marijuana) side effects and the dangers of abuse. If future studies will show no benefit and more harm, then we would have wasted all our time in contemplating to pass this bill,” Dr. Minerva Calimag, Philippine Medical Association president, said in an interview.

Dr. Anita Sangalang, a professor of Pharmacology at the UST Faculty of Pharmacy, agreed that medical marijuana has positive effects. But she said patients should not become fully dependent on it and should not replace prescribed medication.

“I know it (marijuana) may help the patient, [and] it may ease their pain. But still, it should not replace the appropriate medication for illnesses,” she said in an interview.

Sangalang added that doctors should conduct further research on medical marijuana.

The Department of Health (DOH) said it was reviewing the proposal.

In a position paper, the Medical Cannabis Research Center said that if the bill is passed, “the Philippines will lead Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] in the emerging field of medicine based on whole plant cannabis extracts.”

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Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said in a statement last August that drug addiction is a grave offense, except on strictly therapeutic grounds.

“We cannot issue a blank rejection to the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” Villegas said. “Catholic medical ethics allows us to use even prohibited drugs to be regulated by government in case of terminally-ill patients in order to assist them in their pain, especially in the last stage of their ailment.”

Villegas, however, emphasized that abuse and dependence to of these kind of drugs are against Christian ethics.

“Substance abuse and drug dependence are wrong, and any measure that makes abused or habituating substances within easy reach of potential abusers and dependents is morally wrong,” he said.

“[The] government, no doubt, must be vigilant, and measures that facilitate access to abused substances cannot be countenanced. The family must [also] do its part and so must the community,” he added.

Members of PCCS emphasized that the issue on medical cannabis not only revolves around morality but also on the fundamental right to health and right to life.

“Health is a human right. Patients should be at least be informed of, if not given, all possible treatment options,” Mutia said.

Although methods of palliative care to patients with terminally-ill diseases include drugs such as cannabis, Villegas appealed to Filipino doctors to be vigilant.

“Physicians [should] determine carefully whether there is due proportion between the risks involved and the benefits anticipated,” he said. Kimberly Joy V. Naparan and Rhenn Anthony S. Taguiam

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