‘We cannot arrest our way out of this drug problem’

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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‘We cannot arrest our way out of this drug problem’
Speaking to Rappler, US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield says the drug problem 'is a public health crisis as much as it is a law enforcement crisis'

MANILA, Philippines – In 1971, then US president Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs – an “all-out offensive” later waged in Colombia in the 1990s, then in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte.

“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” Nixon said on June 17, 1971. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”

In this war on drugs, the US government eventually arrested more drug users, created the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, and even allotted $1.7 billion to eradicate illegal drugs in 1986. 

As a result, the use of illegal drugs “fell throughout the 1980s to some of the lowest levels we’ve ever seen,” former US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske wrote on the Huffington Post

Here’s the catch, Kerlikowske said: “Spending on overcrowded prisons spiked to unsustainable levels, the criminal justice system came to resemble a revolving door, and the relationship between police and the communities they serve was frequently strained to the breaking point.”

Because of these problems, drug use in the US began to rise again.

Focusing mainly on criminal justice, the US war on drugs became unsustainable in the long run. 

Experts fear the same thing in the Philippines, as Duterte wages a war on drugs that has killed more than 3,500 people, and has prompted almost 725,800 drug users and pushers to surrender. 

William Brownfield, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs of the US State Department, recounted Kerlikowske’s words in an interview with Rappler.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this drug problem,” Brownfield quoted Kerlikowske as saying in the context of the US drug crisis.

Public health crisis, too

Kerlikowske also said that “a ‘war on drugs’ mentality is too simplistic an approach to be effective.”

Brownfield explained that the drug problem “is a public health crisis as much as it is a law enforcement crisis.”

Illegal drugs, for one, have been associated with mental illnesses. At the Roads and Bridges to Recovery rehabilitation center, 80% of patients have been classified as “dually diagnosed”, which means they have a mental illness along with their drug use problem.

There is higher value in interdicting or intercepting drugs at sea rather than attempting to capture drugs after they have entered the country. – William Brownfield, US State Department

Illegal drugs have also been known to cause paranoia, which makes it “highly possible” for drug suspects to fight back when the police arrest them, according to psychiatrist Benita Sta. Ana Ponio.

Citing Kerlikowske’s statements, Brownfield said that in the first place, fighting drugs “is not just a matter of criminal science.”

“It is also a matter of neuroscience,” he said.

“In other words, what is it that affects the brain of a human being that makes him want to use dangerous and deadly drugs? And the argument he was making was, it must be both law enforcement and public health. That was the US experience,” Brownfield added.

‘Interdiction at sea’ better 

In his interview with Rappler, Brownfield – an anti-narcotics expert who served as US ambassador to Colombia – listed other global best practices in combating illegal drugs. 

He said one lesson is that “there is higher value” in interdicting or intercepting drugs at sea, “rather than attempting to capture drugs after they have entered the country.”

“Why? Because they are concentrated normally in very large loads as they are being transported from one country to another country. And if you interdict a vessel, you might interdict a ton of product, whereas if you detain a dealer on the street, you’ll get at best a couple of hundred grams of products,” Brownfield said.

A second lesson, Brownfield added, “is the importance of combining prosecutors with police in terms of investigations and operations.”

“At the end of the day, if the police make arrests but they do not see any follow-up by prosecutors, they become frustrated. And the other side of the package, if prosecutors get cases presented to them, but with very poor evidence packages that will not prosper or succeed in a court of law, the prosecutors get frustrated,” he explained.

Brownfield added that another good practice is to focus on one “zone” at a time.

“Our experience is that when the government tries to address all drugs, in all parts of the country at the same time, their law enforcement assets become stretched and overworked. And the drug traffickers, who are not stupid people, they’re very good businessmen, will take advantage of the weak points in order to move their products and build markets,” the US official said.

On top of all these, he stressed the need to mount education campaigns and to address the money laundering system of drug syndicates. 

Referring to the US experience, Brownfield pointed out: “I do not say that our experience must be the same as that of the Philippines or any other nation. But I do think it’s useful for us to learn from one another’s experiences.”

We need to introduce a public health framework to the treatment of drug consumption focusing on prevention, attention, rehabilitation, and re-socialization of drug abusers. – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia’s war on drugs

In the case of the Philippines, the country is taking its cue from Colombia, which waged a war on drugs nearly two decades after the US did.

Then Colombian president Virgilio Barco Vargas launched his own country’s war on drugs in September 1989 “with enthusiastic support from the Bush administration,” the group Human Rights Watch said. 

While Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said Colombia “won” its war on drugs, no less than Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos admits that the war on drugs “has not been won.”

This is because, while Colombia has had “significant achievements” against drug cartels, “drug traffickers adapt and change, making progress reversible.”

In a piece for The Guardian, Santos then listed “4 issues that need urgent attention if progress is to be made.”

First, he said, governments need “to frame policy on drugs with a context of human rights, which stops victimizing the victims of drug abuse.”

“Under this principle, we expect to progress in preventing the stigmatization of drug users, abolishing the death penalty for drug-related offenses, and obligatory treatments for drug abusers, among other measures,” he said.

Second, he also said international drug control conventions should “guarantee enough national autonomy for interpretation and flexibility to adopt national policies that take into account local realities and challenges.”

Third, Santos stressed the need to transition “from a purely repressive response towards a more comprehensive approach.”

For one, he said, “We need to introduce a public health framework to the treatment of drug consumption focusing on prevention, attention, rehabilitation, and re-socialization of drug abusers.”

Fourth, Santos said governments “must persist in combating transnational organized crime.”

“The international community can rest assured that, when we call for a new approach, we are not giving up on confronting the problem; we are moved by the aim of finding a more effective, lasting, and human solution,” the Colombian president said.

Human rights violations

While the Colombian president is calling for a “human solution”, Duterte has been criticized for waging a war that violates human rights. 

This comes as Duterte’s war on drugs has killed at least 3,509 people since July 1. 

Of this number, 2,233 have died in extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings. At the same time, 1,276 have been slain in police operations, with police saying the suspects resisted arrest even as the relatives of some of them claim otherwise.

Because of these killings, the United States, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the European Parliament have aired their concern over Duterte’s war on drugs. 

US Senator Patrick Leahy said the Phiippines might face “further conditions” on US aid if extrajudicial killings continue, while US Senator Benjamin Cardin said Duterte “is endorsing what amounts to mass murder.” 

Leahy pointed out the lack of drug rehabilitation centers for more than 700,000 drug users and pushers who have already surrendered. 

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo recently cited a report that of this number, “only 10% or 70,000 have been deemed ‘eligible for institutional rehabilitation.'”

Sabi po namin, ano mangyayari sa 630,000? Wala pang programa,” Robredo said. (We said, what will happen to the 630,000? There’s no program yet.)

REFORMING LIVES. This photo taken on July 21, 2016, shows a female resident-patient of a Philippine rehabilitation center, as she sits on her bed next to rosary beads, in Payatas, Quezon City. Photo by Jake C. Salvador/AFP

Leahy said, “By failing to address the needs of those who have risked coming forward, President Duterte is missing an opportunity to combat the drug trade in one of the most sustainable ways possible: by helping hundreds of thousands of people get the help they want to beat their addiction.”

Recently, too, members of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights questioned the Philippines over human rights issues in line with the war on drugs.

UN committee member Heisoo Shin pointed out, “Those who are killed and accused are mainly poor individuals suspected of drug dealing and drug usage, so where is the rule of law?”

Shin’s colleague at the UN committee, Colombian human rights expert Rodrigo Uprimny, also criticized Duterte’s war on drugs.

“I know that President Duterte’s policy of war on drugs is very, very popular,” Uprimny said. “In Colombia, it was also very, very popular – what we call social cleansing.”

“But I think,” Uprimny said, “that democracy means sometimes to have the courage not to follow policies that might be very popular but undermine the rule of law and the respect for human rights.”

Duterte, however, remains adamant about his war on drugs, saying suspects get killed because they resist arrest. He also said other countries shouldn’t meddle in local affairs.

In a comment that drew the ire of Germany along with other groups, the President even said he will “be happy to slaughter” 3 million drug addicts as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler “massacred 3 million Jews.” 

That comment prompted Pentagon chief Ashton Carter to say he personally found Duterte’s comments on Hitler “deeply troubling.” – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com