United Nations

How serious is the Marcos government about amending the anti-drug law?

Lian Buan

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How serious is the Marcos government about amending the anti-drug law?

DRUG POLICY SUMMIT. DDB executive director Earl Saavedra takes questions from the media alongside UNODC Philippine manager Daniele Marchesi on the opening day of the Drug Policy and Law Reform Summit on July 10, 2024.

The President, who was supposed to give the keynote speech, skips a United Nations-led summit in Manila

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine government under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has backed the multi-sectoral push to amend or repeal the current Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Law or Republic Act 9165. Human rights advocates say this law has enabled the punitive and brutal anti-drug campaign of the former government under Rodrigo Duterte.

“We collectively push for the current law to either be amended, or for our lawmakers to introduce a proposed bill to govern the anti-drug campaign of the country. Indeed we acknowledge that there are gaps in the current anti-drug law,” said Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) Executive Director Undersecretary Earl Saavedra on Wednesday, July 10, at the opening of the high-profile Drug Policy and Law Reform Summit.

Saavedra, however, could not yet specify what amendments they would be seeking. He stopped short of committing Marcos’ certification as urgent.

“Part of the commitments will be to help the different sectors advocate for and champion the recommendations of the amendment. The recommendations you saw will still flourish, it will still have a different face, there will be additions, with specificity we will see,” Saavedra told the media on the sidelines of the event.

The summit’s whole framework is harm reduction, where the main principle is that people who use drugs for various reasons can lead unproblematic, productive lives. But the law automatically frames drug use as a crime. Among the recommendations were to make drug tests voluntary and not mandatory, and to not use the drug test result to discriminate.

The legislature will have the final say on possible amendments, and Saavedra, whose DDB is under the Office of the President, said “there are significant discussions happening between key government agencies and our legislators in both houses of Congress and we are mentioning to them the need.”

Marcos was supposed to give the keynote speech on Wednesday, but he was a no-show and instead attended an impounding process ceremony of the Upper Wawa dam in Rizal, and later the signing in Malacañang of the new preliminary investigation rules for prosecutors. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, who was also supposed to give a keynote speech in the summit, was instead also in Malacañang for the signing.

Crowd, Person, Adult
ANOTHER EVENT. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (center) and Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin ‘Boying'”‘ Remulla (right) on July 10, 2024, attend a rules-signing ceremony in Malacañang instead of the United Nations-led drug policy reform summit. Photo courtesy of the DOJ
How committed is Marcos?

The summit is a big deal in the human rights community because it is the culmination of the three-year UN Joint Programme on Human Rights or the UNJP. UNJP operationalized the technical cooperation offered by the UN to the Duterte government, which was done in place of a full investigation. This soft approach had been criticized by human rights advocates here and abroad.

The drug policy reform summit is packaged as the relaunch of the government’s drug policy, in which Marcos officials claim a pivot to a humane, and health-oriented “bloodless” response.

“Time and again, we heard the President and his consistent pronouncement that there is a new face to the anti-drug campaign of the Philippine government. [Interior Secretary Benhur] Abalos told the  United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna…. He emphasized the success of the bloodless anti-drug campaign,” said Saavedra.

But it has not been bloodless – in fact, there have been 700 drug-related killings since Marcos became president in 2022, and some killings are still being committed by State agents. This is according to the independent monitoring of the Dahas Project of the University of the Philippines (UP) Third World Studies Center.

Saavedra said he was not aware of the Dahas monitoring, which had been cited by civil society for years now. UP is also a partner of the UNJP through its College of Law.

“When it comes to the data you mentioned about those killed, I have yet to validate,” said Saavedra.

While the summit and UNJP efforts are “welcome, of course,” Carlos Conde, Philippine researcher of the Human Rights Watch, said “the government’s seeming reluctance to even acknowledge the damage the drug war has wrought [brings] a feeling of concern.”

“This was made worse by Marcos’ absence today, which signifies a lesser appreciation of the problem, contrary to what he communicates to the outside world,” said Conde.

‘Paradigm shift’

UN representatives took turns praising the “paradigm shift” in the drug policy under Marcos. “I’m happy that the UN is taking a calculated risk with you and is engaged in those areas where we can bring comparative advantages,” said UN resident coordinator to the Philippines, Gustavo Gonzalez.

“I am convinced that the paradigm shift will transform this country into a role model in the region and globally,” said Gonzalez.

“Listening to all the government officials today, it’s as if no killing happened, that there are no 30,000 victims,” said Conde. Of the estimated 30,000 killed in Duterte’s campaign against drugs, police admitted to killing as many as 7,000 in their legitimate anti-drug operations.

“This conversation is thousands of lives overdue,” said Cathy Alvarez, a human rights lawyer who heads StreetLawPH, which assists those arrested for drug offenses.

“We cannot move forward to a humane drug policy while Oplan Tokhang continues to subject communities to violence, trauma, and human rights violations,” said Alvarez.

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Tokhang under Marcos

Saavedra claims that “there is a balanced approach” now because “there is heavy investment in demand reduction and health social development services.”

“This is a fantastic positive step, but what does it mean? We do know that simply having these words on paper and uttering them in conversations does not a rights-based policy make,” said Inez Feria of NoBox Philippines.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) under Marcos uses a new circular that replaced the circular of Duterte’s Oplan Tokhang. The previous circular authorized police and even barangay officials to knock on the homes of suspected drug users or pushers and “plead” with them to surrender or volunteer for a rehabilitation. This operations have led to thousands of so-called “nanlaban” (fighting back) encounters, where allegedly armed suspects were killed.

The new circular under Marcos, effective since 2022, is called Anti-Illegal Drugs Operation thru Reinforcement and Education or ADORE. The words knock and plead, and even the word “neutralize,” have been removed. However, there are still provisions that authorize police to “extract information” through “covert activities.”

“What is good is that there is mention of validation of information to assess accuracy and reliability. There is also intelligence gathering; but background check for those to be involved; there is vetting. What can be abused by scrupulous law enforcers is covert activities,” said Ray Paolo Santiago, executive director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center, in an earlier interview.

“People use drugs. This is a fundamental truth we must acknowledge. People use drugs, and most of them lead normal lives. They work, they take care of their families, they contribute to society. They do not require treatment, and they certainly do not deserve arrest or incarceration,” Feria added.

PNP drug policy circular by Lian Buan on Scribd

‘Never again’

Alvarez highlighted that a key feature of any reform would be reparation and accountability for those who were killed and harmed in the previous campaign. The drug war reinvestigation, even spilling into Marcos, has shelved 30 of the measly 52 cases reviewed out of the 7,000 that the police killed.

This drug war reinvestigation is also part of the government’s promise to the UNJP. Marcos has also not rejoined the International Criminal Court, and remains to have indecisive rhetoric on whether he will enforce a potential ICC order.

“Government rhetoric for reform will amount to nothing if Marcos won’t categorically end the drug war. He doesn’t need a summit to do that,” said Conde.

“We urgently need to make these reforms to make sure that no one else in our communities is killed; that no one else is widowed, that no one else is orphaned, not today, not tomorrow, never again,” said Alvarez.


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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.