FDA chief open to medical marijuana as doctors warn of harm

Gaea Katreena Cabico - Philstar.com
FDA chief open to medical marijuana as doctors warn of harm
Cannabis plant
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MANILA, Philippines — The chief of the country's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Tuesday that he is "very open" to the medical use of cannabis or marijuana, but doctors warned that the legalization of the substance could expose Filipinos to "unnecessary harm."

Last week, a joint panel of the House of Representatives approved a consolidated bill that seeks to make legal the medical use of marijuana, but without removing it from the country's list of dangerous drugs. 

In a briefing Tuesday, FDA Director General Samuel Zacate expressed openness to the use of marijuana for medical purposes. 

"Filipinos must have a wide range of therapeutic indications or drugs of choice. So ako for the record [...] is very much open for marijuana as long as it has been streamlined and does not pose harm to the public," Zacate said. 

Although open to considering medical marijuana, Zacate said the issue is still "subject to the wisdom of the legislative [branch]."

Under current regulations, the FDA has the authority to grant hospitals compassionate special permits for using unregistered medical products, including processed medical cannabis.

According to the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in marijuana "has proven medical benefits in particular formulations." 

These medications are prescribed to patients undergoing chemotherapy, suffering from wasting syndrome due to AIDS, or experiencing neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis. 


In a separate briefing, medical groups led by the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) opposed the proposed measures to legalize cannabis for any use other than those with medical value approved by the FDA.

"Although there is variability in the experience on the harms of legalizing cannabis in various states or countries, there is a clear trend towards the harmful effects that outweigh the purported benefits," the PMA said in a statement read by neurologist Dr. Leonor Cabral-Lim.

For the medical association, the proposed House measure is a "de facto bill for recreational marijuana."

"Cannabis used as a recreational drug, and used as medicine for unproven medical indications is a dangerous drug," it added. 

PMA experts warned of potential negative impacts on brain development due to prenatal cannabis exposure. They also pointed out the increased vulnerability of young people to developing dependency on the substance.

"The legalization of cannabis is a step that could irreparably harm the social fabric of our nation by enabling easier access to marijuana for Filipino youth," the PMA said.

'Medical cannabis office'

Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, who chairs the House's dangerous drugs committee, said that the proposed legislation would not legalize marijuana as it will remain classified as a prohibited drug under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. 

The bill also seeks to create a Medical Cannabis Office under the Department of Health, which will grant accreditation to doctors and other licenses for the medical use of cannabis. 

Public health reform advocate Tony Leachon questioned adding the responsibility to the DOH.

"The Department of Health is so overloaded with work. Why would you bring that to the DOH?" he said.

During his confirmation hearing as the DOH chief in September 2023, Secretary Teodoro Herbosa said he was in favor of the legalization of medical marijuana. 

When asked about Herbosa's stance on medical cannabis, Leachon responded partly in Filipino: "If he approves medical cannabis, we don't know who else to turn to."

Thailand is set to urgently move a bill to ban the recreational use of cannabis after the kingdom decriminalized the substance in 2022.

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