What you need to know
In the Philippines, where the government has carried out a bloody war on drugs, a party has been formed to advocate for the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
Jommy Teotico didn’t expect to spend over six years in prison for violating the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, which regulates drug use in the Philippines, for possession of marijuana. He just wanted to relax.
In 2008, he won the first season of the Philippine edition of Fear Factor. After the competition, the show afforded him a routine psychological evaluation wherein he was diagnosed with ADHD. The doctor explained the symptoms to him and now he could put a name to his constant restlessness. He shunned prescription medicines fearing side effects and was intent on finding a better remedy.
After consulting with medical professionals, Teotico said, “I tried marijuana. I became calm. I started sleeping at a normal time which I couldn’t do before. My body felt balanced. I’d found the yin to my yang. Everything was really chill and I let go of the negativity.”
On October 23, 2014, Teotico was at home, relaxing when the police burst through his doors. “The next thing I knew, I was behind bars.”
He finished his sentence in February of this year with one thing on his mind, to “help educate misinformed people.” Now he works as an organizer and occasional spokesperson of the newly formed Medical Cannabis Party, the first political party in the Philippines and Asia dedicated to the decriminalization of cannabis use.
“We are an opposition party because we aim to confront the existing state drug policies. Under Duterte we have seen the bloodiest iteration of a drug war. We believe that the medical benefits of cannabis and even its industrial advantages will be lost to the country as long as our drug policies remain prohibitionist,” explained Henri Enaje, an attorney and the party’s national chairperson.
He added, “The War on Drugs has failed — it failed to bring us a just, humane, and peaceful society. As human rights and drug policy reform advocates, patients needing cannabis medicines, and some of us even victims of the drug war, we strongly call for an end to the so-called war against drugs. In truth, it has only victimized, jailed, or killed the poor and the helpless. It is this same brutal policy that prevents patients from accessing cannabis as medicine.”
Support, don’t punish
The Medical Cannabis or MedCann Party, fittingly launched last April 20, has established chapters in major cities across the Philippines, such as Metro Manila, Bacolod, Cebu, and Baguio. Besides its electoral agenda, the Party serves as an umbrella organization for dozens of groups in the country pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana use. The goal is to be able to field a congressional candidate in the 2022 national polls. The Commission on Elections is set to release an initial list of approved parties this July.
Enaje says they have long since complied with every feasible requirement to be an accredited party. While he admits that the country’s characteristic conservatism may work against their favor, “It’s about time to reclaim the narrative and showcase the political force of the community.” He added, “Whatever happens, we are geared towards a legislative cannabis agenda.”
The party supports industrial hemp, cannabis in medicinal practices and the eradication of criminal records of those with possession charges.
Because of this platform, the cannabis advocates haven’t been exempt from the climate of impunity and authoritarianism under President Rodrigo Duterte, architect of the drug war.
In July last year, the administration passed the Anti-Terror Law, a blanket policy granting authorities the power to quash dissent in the name of fighting terrorism. Activists, drug war critics, and advocates of anything that does not fall under what the regime considers acceptable are liable to face intimidation and scare tactics as the folks at MedCann learned. Their Baguio chapter last month had planned a public assembly, but local authorities invoked the Anti-Terror Law to stop it from taking place.
In the Philippines, activists, whatever they’re fighting for, are being lumped together by the state. Government officials consider the left to be terrorists, and because medical cannabis advocates criticize existing policy, they can likewise be placed in the same category in the eyes of the regime.
High time for a change
Enaje said the Department of Health and the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) are the most ardent opponents of medical marijuana. House Bill 6517 or the Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, which legalizes the use of marijuana for its medicinal capabilities, remains stalled in the lower house of Congress.
In a position paper, the PMA states its disapproval of the bill, saying marijuana poses “harm to the healthy with no guarantees for the sick” and there are not “sufficient scientific grounds to prove its medicinal properties. The association also expresses fears over substance abuse of marijuana in recreational settings.
Enaje dismisses these claims, which he said have been widely disproved by scientists around the world. He believes these institutions chose to cling to traditional values and stand with big pharmaceutical interests while depriving a population of healthier lives.
Raquel (who declined to share her real name) can attest to the rewards of medicinal marijuana. Her 11 year old son suffers from epilepsy, autism, and ADHD. Since her son shifted away from pharmaceuticals four years ago, she has observed near “miraculous” improvements in his behavior.
“He used to be so thin and lay around like a vegetable. He couldn’t walk before. But now he can. He talks, he calls me Mama. He knows the names of people in our family. He’s becoming an active child. Parents need this, and parents need to be talking about this in the open,” she told The News Lens.
Enaje said, “Times are changing. Many countries are able to regulate medical cannabis. This is the medicine we are talking about. That’s our main assertion in the discourse of health. Because of that, we are hoping for a Philippines where nobody is ever jailed because of cannabis.”
The MedCann Party plays a larger role than just advocating for marijuana related issues. Its existence diversifies the landscape of the opposition in the country. Many times, the polarizing policies of the current administration has spurred previously disengaged groups to greater action. The party is the first of its kind in the country, persevering in some of the harshest conditions in order to thrive, but Enaje and the others are keeping the faith. They want a country free from a war on drugs, free from the dominion of pharmaceuticals, and free from the brunt force of authoritarianism. If one thinks about it, that sounds like a pretty chill place to be.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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