PH ‘war on drugs’ should draw lessons from other countries

Mary Grace Santos, Joy Aceron

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'Is there another way to achieve the same result and make drug addicts or users surrender or cooperate with authorities without capitalizing on the threat of death?'

It was U.S. President Richard Nixon who first declared drug use and drug abuse as “public enemy number one” in 1971. Since then, governments around the world zeroed in on this issue and organized strategies and specialized agencies that uncovered massive underground cartels and syndicates fueling the supply of a variety of illegal substances (cocaine, heroin, and marijuana being the big three), and its trading within and across countries around the globe.


In 2012, the United Nations World Drug Report identified the Philippines as having the highest abuse rate for “shabu” in this part of Asia, and tagging Chinese crime groups and traffickers as its primary source. Newly-elected President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has clearly made the case for a renewed crackdown on drugs, with the current Administration and its instrumentalities, especially the police, going all out to accomplish the job.


‘The only way’ 


As recent news reports show, this “all out war on drugs” has unconditional trade offs: “hit lists” are being drafted and vetted by questionable sources; right to due process, which is a supposed non-negotiable in any lawful execution of crime prevention programs, are deliberately set aside or ignored; and killing a human being suspected (not yet convicted) of involvement by government-sanctioned operatives became excusable and pardonable by the Chief Executive in the name of this war. (READ: Fact checking Duterte’s list)


President Duterte’s call to solve the problem “at all costs” is now being carried out in such a deadly fashion both by government (the police) and non-government entities (Davao Death Squad-inspired vigilantes) that the death count of suspected drug pushers and users and collateral victims is now at more than 400 in just a month. In such an environment, it seems that no one is safe. (READ: US concerned by PH’s violent war on drugs)


Bringing in method to this madness: Learning from the experience of other countries


Strengthening the law enforcement and justice systems – making it fair, just and efficient – are the long term solutions that can bring lasting and more favorable results. The government’s use of untethered violence will not strengthen these institutions; they are made more vulnerable to “particularistic capture” – with the power networks supporting drugs being abolished only to be replaced with other, likely more vicious ones.


The current implementation strategy is not only stepping on moral and legal boundaries (murder is murder, period), it is also impractical, as shown by the experience of other countries. (READ: Dela Rosa: Mistakes in Duterte’s drug list are ‘small things’)


Take the case of Thailand, for instance. Thailand, under the Thaksin Government, used practically the same strategy that the Duterte Administration is using now, where violence is a key component. The strategy did not stop drugs. Instead, it left at least 2,800 dead. An investigation done later on established that half of those killed (1,400 persons at least) were not even involved in drugs.


One gain being claimed by the Duterte government’s war on drugs is the massive surrender of drug addicts and users. It says the fear resulting from the many addicts or pushers who were killed prompted these thousand of addicts or users to surrender.


Is there another way to achieve the same result and make drug addicts or users surrender or cooperate with authorities without capitalizing on the threat of death? 


Solution: People as partners


There is one experience abroad which is worth further looking into. It has resulted in the same outcome we are seeing now: the massive surrender of drug addicts or users. It also  stopped the spread of HIV and neutralized drug syndicates. 


The video “Why the War on Drugs is a Huge Failure” shows this alternative approach. This is a must-see video because it clearly and accessibly explains why the “war on drugs”  strategy has been a failure. The alternative solution to the problem is at the latter part of the video.



It highlights the case of Switzerland as an example of a country that employed an alternative approach and actually won the campaign against drugs.

Swiss authorities employed a “Harm Reduction” strategy to encourage drug addicts and users to enter rehabilitation facilities where they could access drugs but also clean needles. The facilities also helped the drug addicts and users to look for jobs. The solution is constructive and is built on positive reinforcement. It turns the problem into an opportunity by making those considered ‘problems’ of society as partners who can be part of the solution. 


Where can we get the money to improve our rehabilitation centers? The government has sufficient resources if it will only allocate it properly and strategically, and tap non-government actors — the private sector, the academe, NGOs, citizen groups — in targeted interventions. Other countries, including mulitaleteral organizations such as the United Nations, have already expressed their willingness to help. 

Poor as victims 

The poor are mostly the victims of this war on drugs. The poor need support so they can be empowered and become productive members of our society. Use this problem on drugs to be an opportunity to turn the poor as part of the solution and as partners by assisting them overcome the hurdles that keep them from being productive members of our society. 

There are obviously a number of alternative solutions that can be employed by the government. At this point, one thing should be emphasized: Killing a drug pusher or drug user should not be the end goal for it does not solve the problem.

Sowing fear and horror among the people is also not a sustainable deterrent.

We can solve this problem together as a nation if our premise is to solve the problem while keeping true to the foundations that hold this nation together: human rights, rule of law, and open participation of all. –

Joy Aceron is Program Director at Ateneo School of Government directing Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) and Government Watch (G-Watch), programs that aim to deepen democracy in the Philippines.

Mary Grace Santos is the Executive Director of the Universities and Research Councils Network on Innovation for Inclusive Development in Southeast Asia (UNIID-SEA), and is a part-time lecturer at the Development Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University. 

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