The Philippine Paradox: An Interview with Senator Risa Hontiveros

In the constant, daily laboured birth of the global cannabis industry, there is no greater paradox than the Philippines.

On one hand, you have incredible tragedy: the thousands of deaths that have been encouraged by President Duterte in his terrifying war on drugs. On the other hand, members of the government are calling for calm and logic to deal with their illegal trafficking problem.

Much of the poise and wisdom coming out of the Philippine Government comes from Senator Risa Hontiveros, who has introduced a bill to legalize medicinal cannabis and other drugs with prescription capability. interviewed Senator Hontiveros in an effort to understand exactly what is going on in her country, and where it’s all headed.

“[The bill]  is an alternative drug policy which takes a human rights and right to health framework in addressing drug-related issues and concerns. It recognizes that drug use is a public health issue and that the criminal justice approach has led to abuses and was proven to be ineffective,” she tells.

Hontiveros added that the bill doesn’t just provide access to medicine like marijuana; it’s a “holistic drug policy” aimed at harm reduction through community-based programs. “Drug users are humans and their rights should be protected.”

The Senator’s proposed legislation has been introduced and will go through three readings in its journey through the House of Representatives and the Senate. If all goes well, the final hurdle will be President Duterte, who is required to sign off before any bill becomes law. The Duterte hurdle is the one Hontiveros is most concerned with. “Unfortunately, President Duterte has yet to acknowledge the bill. He has yet to acknowledge that there is an alternative to his punitive and violent campaign against drugs.”

Hontiveros admitted that the chances of the bill passing are slim, but her real goal at this time is to “provide a platform for a discourse on an alternative to Duterte’s war on drugs.” The Senator wants to get the government talking about doing anything other than killing people, which is the current policy.

“With the excesses of this war on drugs, most especially the glaring human rights abuses committed with impunity, I am hopeful that people will start looking for an alternative drug policy and that this bill will be seen as one.”

Her outlook on the bill and its goals are a real indication that Hontiveros handles challenges with intelligent problem-solving, as opposed to a blind uphill battle with unrealistic expectations. “Some victories are achieved in phases. So, we need to fight gradual, snowballing, momentum-building battles. Once we are able to provide the discourse and we get the public on our side, the enactment of this bill will follow.”

Further to Hontiveros efforts, it’s obvious that she has friends in high places who agree with her approach. “We have allies from local government units. Those who are already implementing community-based programs for drug users in their localities. They are speaking up. National leaders appointed by the President are not yet on board, but there are members of the public health sector who are supportive of the bill. We hope that when we start hearing the bill in my Committee, we could get them to be vocal of their support.”

As Hontiveros fights to save the lives of her fellow citizens, it’s clear why she has made this a personal cause. “I am a health advocate and I firmly believe in evidence-based policy making. Global experience, data, research, and studies have already discredited the crime and punishment approach to the war on drugs. Harm reduction is the policy that works. I believe that the rights of the people who use drugs should be respected and protected, and the narrative of this war on drugs should be shifted from punishment to treatment.”

As the world watches the current struggle in the Philippines for drug users and suppliers alike, one can only hope that President Duterte will have a change of opinion. Or at the very least, perhaps Duterte’s colleagues will gain the confidence to point out that allowing citizens to murder each other is wrong.

Anything other than what the Philippines is currently doing will save thousands of lives. Cannabis reform aside, ending mass violence should be priority number one.

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