[ANALYSIS] How Duterte’s exaggerations worsened the Philippines’ drug problem

JC Punongbayan

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[ANALYSIS] How Duterte’s exaggerations worsened the Philippines’ drug problem
We’ve come to a point where drugs can be literally fished out of our waters. How can anyone hear these stories and reasonably claim them to be signs of success?


We’re nearing the midpoint of the Duterte administration, yet we’re nowhere near solving the Philippines’ drug problem. By all accounts, things even seem to have gotten worse.

For example, over the weekend, Duterte proclaimed, “There are seven to eight million Filipinos reduced to slaves to a drug called shabu. Seven to eight million lost souls.”

Last Monday, February 25, he said, “We are facing a serious problem… The Medellin Cartel of Colombia has entered the country so we will be seeing a lot of cocaine.” 

We don’t quite know how accurate these claims are. But in this article I want to argue that painting an ever-direr picture of the country’s drug problem is part and parcel of Duterte’s overall political strategy: by exaggerating the drug problem’s extent and continually framing it as a national security issue, he is able to justify his war on drugs which caters to his authoritarian style of leadership.

In the process of manufacturing a drug crisis, Duterte has inexorably created a real one.

Manufactured crisis

Let me be clear at the outset: the Philippines does have a long-standing drug problem. That much cannot be denied.  

But Duterte has been, for the past few years, overstating its scale and scope.

Back in 2016, upon assuming office, he trumpeted that there were about 3 to 4 million drug users in the country. Yet this presidential guesstimate flew in the face of the official figures of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), which in 2015 estimated only about 1.8 million drug users nationwide.  

Duterte became extremely defensive when his guesstimate got challenged by his own men, so that when former DDB chair Benjamin Reyes stood by his agency’s 1.8 million figure, he was summarily dismissed by the President.

It’s easy to explain Duterte’s agitation. He could only wage a full-blown war on drugs – and sell it to the public – if he could point to a critical mass of drug users out there and paint them as public enemy number one. 

Absent that critical mass – or citing a mere 1.8 million – and his war on drugs will fail to look credible or even necessary.

Swelling ranks

But we’re almost 3 years into the drug war and Duterte is still at it. For some bizarre reason – and without any supporting study – the ranks of drug users just keep on swelling. 

In November 2018, the new DDB chair, retired police general Catalino Cuy, said that there were around 4 to 5 million drug users in the country. Just a few days ago, Duterte updated this to 7 to 8 million.

Table 1 below tracks the disquieting progression of these numbers. Supposing for a moment they’re accurate, then we’ve gone from just 1.8 million drug users in 2015 to as many as 8 million in 2019 – a whopping 344% increase in just 4 years. 


Table 1

You would think that these numbers alone are enough reason to stop the war on drugs immediately and indefinitely. Yet, perversely, Duterte is using these exact same figures to argue for the continuation of his drug war. 

Indeed, Duterte recently announced that, “The drug war I will extend to the last day of my term.” Asked by reporters whether it will be “bloodier,” he simply replied, “I think so.” 

But you can’t justify a program by citing numbers that point to its unmistakable failure. Duterte’s leap of logic is so epic that even the police are stumped: they don’t quite know what to make of Duterte’s figures, and are as clueless as you and I where they came from. 

The inflated and unverifiable statistics betray the fact that Duterte is manufacturing a drug crisis to suit his own ends.  

But aside from this, notice too that he recently elevated the problem “to the level of national security.” 

This is crucial since security crises are authoritarian leaders’ best friends.

In How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt said, “Major security crises…are political game changers. Almost invariably they increase support for the government. Citizens become more likely to tolerate, and even endorse, authoritarian measures when they fear for their security.”

Security crises are so important to authoritarian leaders that, throughout history, many have invented them where they don’t exist. (Just think of the way the dictator Ferdinand Marcos justified his martial law declaration by citing the fake assassination attempt on Juan Ponce Enrile.)

The present war on drugs is no different: it’s the centerpiece of Duterte’s policies precisely because it’s an easy vehicle for him to consolidate power and execute his authoritarian style of leadership.

Real crisis

If you listen only to Duterte, you can’t expect to get an accurate handle on the country’s drug problem. He’s most likely exaggerating it as part of his overarching political strategy.

But at least one thing is certain: his manufactured crisis has undoubtedly morphed into a real one. 

We should have heeded the experiences of other countries early on: any war on drugs – a supply-side intervention – is doomed to fail. That’s why many countries today would rather approach their respective drug problems from the demand side of the market instead.  

Regardless of the approach, any drug policy is supposed to reduce the availability and affordability of drugs. Yet, if you consider recent events, exactly the opposite is happening in the Philippines. 

To wit, bricks of cocaine worth hundreds of millions of pesos were recently found floating off the shores of several provinces like Quezon, Camarines Sur, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, and the Dinagat Islands.  

Before that, prices of shabu (crystal meth) plummeted right after several tons of it came to our shores, got smuggled right under the noses of Customs officials, and eventually flooded the markets. 

Thus, we’ve come to a point where drugs can be literally fished out of our waters or are otherwise becoming cheaper and accessible than ever. How can anyone hear these stories and reasonably claim them to be signs of success? 

Insane policy

As his grip on power starts to slacken – whether because of ill health or his numbered days in office –Duterte is busy depicting an ever-grimmer portrait of the country’s drug problem. 

Yet after 3 long years – and several thousands of extrajudicial killings later – it should be obvious to anyone that Duterte has miserably failed to contain the country’s drug crisis, let alone eradicate it.

Filipinos do not deserve to have several billions of their hard-earned tax money spent on a program that has not just led to innumerable human rights violations but also, by all indications, allowed things to get out of hand.  

We’ve given the war on drugs a chance, but it’s high time we tried other solutions. 

As someone (not Einstein, apparently) once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” 

This upcoming May elections, let’s all vote for candidates who vow to put an end to this protracted bout of insanity. – Rappler.com


The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com). 

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.