Best practices: How other countries dealt with drug problems

Jodesz Gavilan
Best practices: How other countries dealt with drug problems
Portugal and Switzerland are two countries with a high rate of illegal drugs use in the 1980s and the 1990s. How did they manage to turn things around?

MANILA, Philippines – There is no stopping the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte from waging a war against illegal drugs in the Philippines.

As of September 4, data from the Philippine National Police (PNP) show that 4,798 drug personalities have been arrested while 685,740 individuals have surrendered. 

Meanwhile, same data show that 1,011 suspects have been killed in anti-illegal drugs police operations across the country; 10 policemen have also been killed, and 1,507 deaths outside police operations have been recorded as of August 22. 

All these bring the number of all drug-related deaths to at least 2,528 within the first two months of the new administration. 

The drug problem in the country is however not unique to the Philippines.

Many countries have also faced drug problems – and their consequences – through the years. The difference, however, lies in the culture and root cause of the problem in each nation.

How did other countries deal with illegal drugs? Here’s what we found.

Portugal: Decriminalization

Portugal faced a drug problem – mainly cannabis, cocaine, and heroin – that peaked in the 1990s. According to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF), drug-related deaths in Portugal severely worsened as HIV, AIDS, and Hepatitis B and C rates among individuals who injected drugs increased.

As response to the worsening health of Portugal’s drug-using population, legislators enacted “one of the most extensive drug law reforms in the world” in 2001. Portugal decriminalized low-level possession and use of drugs. 

While the manufacturing, dealing, and trafficking of illegal drugs is still penalized under Portugal’s criminal justice system, those found to be in possession of drugs for personal use are not given criminal penalties.

Instead, a person faces the local panel under Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction composed of professionals in the field of law, health, and social work. The members of the panel determine the sanction to be given.

Sanctions on drug offense range from fines to community service. If found to be suffering from drug addiction, an individual is asked to undergo rehabilitation in a drug rehabilitation facility. 

Portugal did not stop with decriminalization. It also increased funding to help expand and improve government programs focused on prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and social reintegration.

TDPF also noted that the country’s “wider health and social reforms” contributed to the success of its drug policies.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that the results of Portugal’s policies included a decrease in the number of drug-related problems. For example, from 44% in 1999, the percentage of people imprisoned in Portugal for drug law violations decreased to 24% in 2013. 

Data from the UNODC show that drug overdose also decreased among adults to just 3 deaths for every one million citizens –  very low compared to the European Union average of 17.3 deaths per one million.

Meanwhile, more people have also sought treatment for drug addiction despite treatment being “voluntary.”

Switzerland: Focus on harm reduction

Switzerland saw a huge increase in the number of dependent drug users of heroine by the end of the 1980s as evident in the many “open drug scenes” in its various cities. The spread of HIV also became massive due to the worsening drug problem in the country.

Aside from massive public information drives on the consequences of drug use, Switzerland’s drug policy also focused on therapy and harm reduction.

Under therapy, individuals suffering from drug addiction are given medical and psychological care.

Harm reduction, meanwhile, seeks to minimize health and social consequences of drug consumption and abuse. 

For example, in 1992, Switzerland implemented a trial of the Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) program, where drug dependents received “medically-controlled doses of heroin.” Its run sought to minimize the spread of disease and the exclusion of drug addicts from society, among others. 

Clean needles were distributed through the needle exchange program in the 1990s to decrease the number of HIV-related drug cases. It also provided Drug Consumption Rooms (DCR) where drug dependents practiced safe injecting. 

Although Switzerland has not completely eradicated the use of illegal drugs, drug-related deaths have steadily decreased from the 1990s to the 2000s. From 405 in 1991, the latest estimated number of deaths primarily due to drugs stands at 152.

More resources, more effective

The economic status of both Portugal and Switzerland are undeniably far better than that of the Philippines, giving them more resources for their various anti-illegal drug programs. 

The 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum (WEF) – which determines the level of productivity of a country through institutions, policies, and other factors – placed Switzerland on the top spot among 140 countries while Portugal landed ranked 38th. 

The Philippines, meanwhile, is at the 47th spot.

Population also spells a big difference among the 3 countries. Portugal’s 10.4 million and Switzerland’s 8.081 million are much lower compared to the Philippines’ 100.98 million population as of 2015.

A smaller population is definitely easier to manage for policy and programs. But the Philippines can still learn what it can from the experiences of these two countries and see what is applicable.

Lessons from Colombia?

Here, the PNP is focusing on convincing known drug pushers and users to surrender and change their ways, while the Department of Health (DOH) has its hands full dealing with drug rehabilitation. More needs to be done.

The country can also take note of what happened in Colombia, which was notorious for drug cartels and the production and export of cocaine.

In an essay published in April 2016, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos wrote that the period where his country waged war against drug barons and criminal organizations was the period when Colombia “lost many of its best political leaders, policemen and soldiers, judges and prosecutors.” 

He added that although “significant achievements” like dismantling drug cartels and reducing the manufacturing and trade of illegal drugs were made, drug traffickers were able to “adapt and change.”

Santos called “for recognition that between total war and legalization, there exists a broad range of options worth exploring” when it comes to combatting the proliferation of illegal drug use. 

If progress is to be made, according to Santos, countries facing a drug problem should frame policies on drugs within the context of human rights, introduce a public health framework to the treatment of drug addiction, and adopt alternatives to prison for drug-related offences. 

He said that “social and economic alternatives” should be provided to communities and sectors using illegal drugs to make ends meet. 

No other nation has had to endure the terrible effects of the world drug problem in such magnitude and over such extended period of time as Colombia,” Santos wrote. “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.

Will the Philippines adopt an effective anti-drug campaign? We have the next 6 years to find out. –

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.