A court in Cebu City has sentenced a local man to 15 years in prison for possessing two marijuana cigarettes, according to a report in the local newspaper the Cebu Freeman. The draconian sentence is just the latest indicator that the country remains mired in an on-going, full-blown anti-drug frenzy.
Official Philippine government statistics put the total number of drug users at 3.5 million out of a total population estimated at 85 million, an unremarkable drug use rate when compared to other countries worldwide. Still, drug-fighting politicians, a particularly shrill tabloid media, and law enforcement organizations have created an atmosphere of total war against drug use and sales -- one in which eruptions of death squad-style executions of suspected druggies take place on a regular basis. Three people were gunned down in Davao City by suspected vigilantes last month, according to local press reports.
Philippine authorities focus much of their attention on methamphetamine, known locally as "shabu," and even claim it is the most popular drug in the archipelago, with marijuana relegated to second place. But marijuana offenses are also severely punished, with persons caught with more than 500 grams (a little more than one pound) facing a possible death sentence, while possession of as little as five grams is punishable by life. Small time offenders possessing less than five grams face as little as 12 years.
In the current case, Emilion Lapay Jr. was walking down the city's Buhisan Road in September 2003 when police responding to an alarm at a video store stopped him, finding two joints. He was "suspicious looking," they said. At his arraignment, Lapay argued that police detained and searched him for no reason and maintained that police took no contraband from him.
But Judge Gabriel Ingles found "more credibility in the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses/arresting officers," who apparently testified that Lapay was holding the joints in plain view, he said in ruling on the case. The police, with their experience, "can easily detect whether what is being held is a stick of cigarette or marijuana by the way it appears." Since Judge Ingles found that Lapay visibly possessed the two joints, he ruled that police needed no arrest warrant, since, "[Lapay] was committing a crime in the presence of the arresting police officers."
Lapay was "guilty beyond reasonable doubt," Judge Ingles ruled, sentencing him to 15 years in prison. But in a magnanimous gesture, the judge left open the possibility he could be free in only 12 years.