Like much of Southeast Asia,
the Philippines is in the midst of drug war hysteria. The newspapers are
filled with drug busts and sympathetic accounts of death squad killings
of drug users and sellers -- a recent headline about yet another death
squad killing was titled simply, "Die, Druggie." Yet even in the Philippines,
voices for drug reform can be heard.
It happened last week in
Visayan, when city councilor Noel de Jesus, a physician accredited with
the national Dangerous Drugs Board, called in a forum for the decriminalization
of the use and possession of marijuana. Criminal penalties should be replaced
with administrative sanctions, he said, according to a report in the Philippine
"If we decriminalize marijuana,
we will decongest our judicial system and we will be unburdening our law
enforcement authorities," de Jesus said, pointing to the experience of
other countries that have decriminalized marijuana use. "This might sound
very revolutionary in our setting, but this is to help defuse a problem
that has gone out of proportion," he said.
What de Jesus is suggesting
is indeed a far cry from official policy in the archipelago. Under current
Philippine law, possession of 500 grams (a little more than one pound)
of marijuana is punishable by death, while possession of between five and
499 grams merits a life sentence. The law goes easier on small-time offenders:
Those who possess less than five grams face only a 12-year prison sentence.
Although Filipino marijuana
laws are severe, they do not appear to have chased the weed away. Authorities
seized 30 million pounds of pot last year, and the hardy plant is grown
throughout the country, especially in the remote mountainous areas of northern
Luzon, central Visayas, and Mindanao.
De Jesus added that unlike
shabu (methamphetamine), marijuana does not make people violent. Instead,
it "keeps them in their place," he said. The doctor also debunked the notion
that once people become addicts, they are addicts for life, citing his
own experience with cigarettes.
Not everyone liked what they
heard. As the Inquirer reported: "Fernando Martinez, the provincial action
officer of the Anti-Drug Abuse and Prevention Council, frowned on De Jesus'
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