Drug users are not beyond redemption
The responsibility for inciting death to drug users lies squarely on President Duterte, but his attitude—that drug users are an unqualified evil—has been the attitude of many Filipinos for decades. Seen in political terms, this attitude sustains the viability of draconian antidrug measures, and enables the President to double down on his macabre war on drugs.
Consider this statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in 1972—the year Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law and embarked on his own war on drugs—which sounds very much like Mr. Duterte’s rhetoric:
A country whose youths are mental and physical wrecks will be hopelessly doomed to ignominy unredeemable until, if that is possible, a new and strong breed will rise up from the ruins. These are the worst saboteurs and are worthy of the highest punishments. For they destroy the youth, the hope of the land.
When shabu began to be used in the Philippines in the 1980s, it was met with the same attitude. Reflecting the public sentiment, the Supreme Court opined in 1988:
It is of common knowledge that drug addicts become useless if not dangerous members of society and in some instances turn up to be among the living dead… The peddlers of drugs are actually agents of destruction. They deserve no less than the maximum penalty.
Years later, Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo would draw political capital from their respective war on drugs. When Estrada’s interior secretary Fred Lim spray-painted the houses of suspected drug lords in 1999, he was cheered on by many, and would have continued to do so had the Court of Appeals not declared his action unconstitutional. Arroyo, for her part, oversaw an escalation of harsh antidrug measures, which reduced the age of criminal liability from “under 18” to “under 15.”
In the Inquirer’s “Talk of the Town” in 2001, a group of commenters called for the tough penalties being implemented or considered today: “Restore death by firing squad.” “Kill the dealers and the pushers.” “Vigilantes are the answer.” As though telegraphed into the future, someone wrote: “Experience shows that most of the suspects are released from detention only to continue their illegal activities. That’s why I support Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s tough stance against drug dealers which some rights groups denounce as inhuman, despite its effectiveness.”
Today, as the extrajudicial killings continue, it cannot be denied that we live in a time of exceptional crisis. Viewing the issue in the light of history, we can also say that Mr. Duterte’s policies are a culmination of what was done and conceived in the past, and made possible by a certain (mis)understanding of the drug problem: Then as now, drug users are seen as a “social evil” that must be eliminated.
To be fair, I don’t think many Filipinos would go as far as to call for death for drug users (until recently, antidrug slogans emphasized the need to “save the user”). And I’m sure the CBCP never thought of killing, whether legal or extrajudicial, as the “highest punishment.”
Even so, the people’s lack of empathy for drug users is very clear in the popular support Mr. Duterte still enjoys. While some of this resentment is understandable—it is true, after all, that some drug users, those who are engaged in criminal activity, are harming our society and must face justice—generalizing criminal behavior to an imagined “4 million,” and conflating users with pushers and traffickers is a dangerous attitude—one that opens up a Pandora’s box of violence.
Alongside our call to Mr. Duterte to end his violent rhetoric, then, we should also work on correcting misconceptions on drug users. I have mentioned just one: generalizing them as criminal, mentally damaged “addicts.” Let me end with another: refusing to believe in their capacity to change.
If we believe that drug users are truly “irredeemable,” then we will find no place for them in our society. We can only move toward solving the drug problem when we see drug users as fellow human beings: imperfect, flawed, and needful of help—but not beyond redemption.
Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.
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