PH can’t win war on drugs with guns alone

Senator Risa Hontiveros
PH can’t win war on drugs with guns alone
As a health advocate, it pains me that our government misses the complexity of the drug problem

It is time to reframe the discourse on the country’s war on drugs. While I join the government in its desire to end the drug problem, a law enforcement approach without a public health and human rights framework will not succeed.

Many people have already been killed 100 days after President Rodrigo Duterte took office and declared a war on drugs. At the moment, 3,100 lives have perished as a result of the government’s anti-drug campaign. One thousand five hundred six (1,506) killed during police operations, the rest by vigilante killings. Around 720,000 suspected drugs users and peddlers have “surrendered” under Oplan Tokhang. Nine per cent (9%) were committed in rehabilitation facilities, while the 91% who did not require institutionalized support were sent back to their communities, some of whom wound up dead. 

There are no indications that this violent strategy will stop. Speaking to reporters, President Duterte made this disturbing statement, “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now there are 3 million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I’d be happy to slaughter them.” While President Duterte already apologized for his statement, there is no denying the chilling message: instead of extending the compassionate hand of rehabilitation to the drug user, the government punishes both user and seller often beyond the long arm of the law. 

As a health advocate, it pains me that our government misses the complexity of the drug problem. It cannot be solved with blazing guns and a thirst for blood. 

To succeed, the government must respond to the health and social issues that lead to drug dependence. It must not simply crack down on supply, it must also approach the demand side with empathy and a strong commitment to human dignity and access to health. Most international public health agencies recognize that substance use is a health issue, much like diabetes or hypertension. We must therefore explore the motivations and social reasons behind drug use, instead of insisting on a one-size-fits-all criminal justice approach. We must focus on reintegration and rehabilitation, instead of cutting off access to essential health services and further alienating drug users from society.

Harm reduction strategies 

Harm reduction strategies are the way forward. According to the New York-based NGO Drug Policy Alliance, “Harm reduction is a public health philosophy and intervention that seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use and ineffective drug policies.” It is a policy model adopted by many countries in their efforts to reduce overall drug-related harms. The Philippine government should follow suit.

Harm reduction is not only a compassionate response, it is also the most effective response. As an essential component of the public health approach to the drug problem, it has effectively reduced overdose, overdose mortalities, and HIV transmissions. It was also shown to have improved public order and reduced the crime rate in communities.

For example,  in the Vietnam province of Da Nang, data has shown that harm reduction programs have actually led to crime reduction. Instead of forced treatment, drug users are persuaded to join voluntary community activities. In China and Iran, harm reduction strategies led to less trafficking, less use of illicit drugs, crime reduction, higher rates of employment among former dependents, and greater participation of drug dependents in communities and family activities. 

Cost-effective and more affordable 

A public health approach to the drug problem is also cost-effective and affordable. According to several studies, for every dollar invested in harm reduction, over $4 accrue in short term health-care cost savings. Harm reduction advocates also estimated that only 10 percent of the approximately $ 100 billion spent annually on international drug enforcement would already cover HIV prevention services for drug users for four years.

The government must take its cue from this strategy by creating friendly, community-based drop-in centers and outreach services; it should encourage the uptake of health services through improved peer education and support; and it should spend resources on sustainable, evidence-based policies and interventions at the community level. Currently, there are only three (3) outpatient centers nationwide to respond to the health needs of the 91 % of the drug dependents who do not require facility-based rehabilitation.  

Drug war model has failed

The Duterte administration must realize that the Philippines is not the first country to launch a war on drugs.

The United States is not unfamiliar with the catastrophic consequences of the drug war model. It is decades since Richard Nixon called drugs “public enemy number one.” Like the current effort in the Philippines, Nixon gained wide public support because people were desperate for concrete results, only to see his efforts wreak havoc on the lives of many people. In Thailand, the drug war, which began in 2003, led to almost 3,000 killings based on spurious uncorroborated “lists,” something we have seen repeated in the Philippines. In 2015, the Justice Minister of Thailand declared the drug war a failure.  There is no reason to believe that lessons from around the globe do not apply to our country. We must listen to history and learn from other countries. 

It was reported that  the US Secretary of State John Kerry committed $32 million to the Duterte government to support intensified law enforcement efforts. Amid the growing number of extrajudicial killings, redirecting part of the funding to harm reduction programs will save more lives and send a strong signal that unwarranted killings should not be tolerated. This is more aligned with the Obama Administration’s denunciation of the drug war model and its strong emphasis on public health as the correct approach. 

Much like many who employed the drug war model, Filipinos are desperate for results. But even in this desperation, the Filipino people must learn the bitter lessons of the war on drugs in the US, and even our neighbor, Thailand. 

This is the lesson behind the Duterte government’s first 100 days. Good policies, not guns alone, are the key to tackling the country’s drug problem. –

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