Philippine palace distances self from ‘pot’ legalization

November 26, 2004

Marvin Sy, Philippine Star

President Arroyo may be against legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal uses but respects the opinion of her son, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo, who has sparked a firestorm in Congress for his controversial stance. The younger Arroyo has backed a proposal for marijuana to be legalized so long as it is 'genuinely for medical purposes and it is strictly controlled or regulated.'

In a statement issued yesterday by Malacañang, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the President’s son 'has expressed an independent view, which must be considered and respected like all views expressed in democratic debate.'

The congressman denied he was supporting the wholesale legalization of marijuana. He expressed his 'unequivocal opposition to all illegal drugs.'

Bunye initially refused to give the President’s position on the issue since it involved her son.

'We should respect each other’s opinion in this particular regard. The Palace has its own stand on this matter. The President respects diverse and contrary opinions,' Bunye said.

However, after much prodding from journalists, Bunye eventually said, 'I guess it’s fair to say the President is opposed to this legislation.'

The legalization of marijuana was raised when the House of Representatives deliberated on the proposed budget of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), upon the suggestion of Ifugao Rep. Solomon Chungalao.

Chungalao said marijuana is the only high-value crop that can be produced in the Cordilleras and its sale could boost the region’s economy.

Arroyo, however, clarified that while he understands Chungalao’s zeal, 'we should never consider marijuana as a cash crop or even its free propagation. While I am keeping an open mind on the bill, I myself am against' legalizing marijuana or tolerating its use for recreational purposes.

'I was very clear in saying that the proposal will have to be carefully studied before we can even begin to support the bill,' he said, insisting that he only approved of the proposal if marijuana is used for 'medical purposes.'

'It’s up to the experts to give their views on this, considering other countries have legalized marijuana in some shape or form. But unless the argument for it is compelling, I am against this,' he said.

Arroyo emphasized that the remarks he made during the deliberations will clearly show his 'strong opposition to all illegal drug use, including that of marijuana.'

He said he will continue to be 'against the use of drugs in all its forms, as this is a major destroyer of our people’s lives and of our society.'

Arroyo also called on law enforcers to continue to crack down on the propagation and sale of marijuana since it serves as a gateway drug that leads users to try other drugs such as shabu, cocaine or heroin.

Meanwhile, several senators led by Ramon Revilla Jr., opposed the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes but Sen. Sergio Osmeña III pushed for the regulated use of marijuana and asked authorities to treat it like alcohol and tobacco.

'Why should we allow the use of one thing that has been declared by experts as illegal when we have other sources that are safe and has no side effects and guaranteed for human consumption and usage?' Revilla said.

He pointed out that marijuana is classified by the DDB as a downer, and belongs to the list of banned crops. Under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 or Republic Act 9165, mere possession of 500 grams of marijuana is punishable by death.

'It is very ironic that we are now thinking of legalizing marijuana when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has announced recently the exportation of Philippine herbs to other countries for medical purposes,' Revilla added.

He said other countries can afford to legalize marijuana for medical purposes because they have an effective police force that can limit its distribution to its intended recipients.

Revilla said if Chungalao’s motive is to give Ifugao residents a source of income, the government can align resources to encourage eco-tourism and agriculture in the area.

Osmeña, on the other hand, cited that in certain European countries and Canada, marijuana is compared to tobacco.

While he admitted that the Philippines cannot legalize marijuana, classified as a dangerous drug under local laws, 'all the studies we have come across as far as marijuana is concerned is that it is regarded as a soft drug, not a hard drug.'

Osmeña said in Europe, there are even 'marijuana bars' that cater to adult clientele.

'They do not enforce the provision of an international treaty against illegal drugs because marijuana was proven to be a soft drug like alcohol. So why will you use the manpower of the police to chase marijuana producers, when you can use them better' to chase producers of hard drugs like shabu, he said.

Osmeña pointed out that the only First World country that still bans marijuana use is the United States, whose citizens cross the border into Canada, which does not have strict laws on its use.

'And in all the countries in Europe, you are allowed to own marijuana plants,' he added.

Osmeña said legalizing marijuana use for medical purposes is a non-issue. He cited that when the US government lifted its prohibition against liquor in 1933, 'whiskey was legalized and society was not destroyed. They just control it, they do not sell it to minors.'

He said marijuana should simply be 'regulated like alcohol and tobacco.'

'As a matter of fact, we might be able to collect a lot more sin taxes from marijuana,' Osmeña said, noting that neither cigarettes nor alcohol can be sold to minors.

'Those of you who have tried marijuana in your youth, you would say that it is a very weak type of drug. It’s like alcohol. You drink two to three bottles of beer, you will be a little bit high but it is just until there,' he added.

Osmeña said the main reason for decriminalizing marijuana is that authorities can utilize the money used for running after marijuana producers 'to catching shabu laboratories. That to me is more important and much more deadly, as far as our kids are concerned.'

He said when he was still chairman of the Senate committee on agriculture, he told agriculture officials in one of the hearings to legalize marijuana because 'it is our best export in other countries.'

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, for his part, said the Department of Health should air its position on the issue and tell the public whether marijuana is safe to use for medical purposes.

'Until and after there is a definition that marijuana is harmless to the health of the user, it will continue to be classified as part of the illegal drugs category,' he said.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) is also studying the proposal to legalize marijuana for medical use, but did not say if PNP officials will oppose or support it.

PNP chief Director General Edgar Aglipay told reporters in Baguio City that marijuana use is often related to criminality, but said the decision still lies with Congress.

Chungalao’s reported agreement to become one of the authors of a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical use has invited numerous criticisms.

'Why? Can’t he find a better bill to co-sponsor?' said a university professor in Baguio.

Other Cordillera residents simply laughed off Chungalao’s proposal.

The region is still the country’s top marijuana producer, claiming 85 percent of the local market.

The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), in a statement, strongly condemned Chungalao’s proposal.

Dante Jimenez, VACC’s founding chairman and himself a staunch campaigner against illegal drugs, expressed his indignation over the proposal, labeling it as 'extremely dangerous, off-target and counter-productive to the government’s intensified anti-drug campaign.'

He said even the medicinal benefits derived from marijuana cannot justify the move to legalize it.

'It sends the wrong signals that we have relaxed our guard against illegal drugs that may embolden drug syndicates,' he said.

Jimenez noted that with the abuse of various types of drugs prevalent among the youth, legalizing marijuana use would aggravate the 'already alarming' drug problem.

'While the government is exerting all measures to reduce production and supply of illegal drugs in its effort to contain the menace, some sectors are actually advocating to legalize the cultivation and use of marijuana? It is absurd, irresponsible and immoral even to consider the proposal,' he said.

The VACC has been tapped by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to monitor the 50 biggest and most sensational drug cases in the country.

The anti-crime watchdog is also set to monitor a drug case filed against 11 people who were caught during a raid on a clandestine laboratory in Mandaue City last Sept. 24, which reportedly yielded the largest cache of drugs in Southeast Asia.

The case has been filed for preliminary investigation before the Mandaue City prosecutor’s office last Sept. 29. Jimenez and other VACC officials visited the city last October to see the suspects and check on the security of their detention facility. With Delon Porcalla, Jose Rodel Clapano, Artemio Dumlao

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