The drug war beyond Duterte
Given this administration’s propensity for theatrics — including (but not limited to) crying police chiefs — I am not convinced that the Philippine National Police’s withdrawal from the so-called “drug war” is the end of this horrific and bloody campaign. We have seen this before in the aftermath of the killing of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo, when an angry President Duterte described the police as “rotten to the core” and announced that the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency would lead the campaign against illegal drugs. As we now know, that volte face proved to be a 360-degree turn. Even if the police would in fact turn its attention to other matters, the Pandora’s box of violence remains open and will continue to be that way unless the perpetrators and enablers of impunity are held to account.
Because he has made it the core of his presidency, the drug war is inexorably linked to Mr. Duterte’s political fortunes. But beyond the ramifications of the drug war to the current regime (and vice versa), we must also be reminded of something that might vex both political sides (or be ignored altogether): the fact that ugly elements of the drug war have actually been waged for decades.
Random drug testing among high school students? It’s actually in Republic Act No. 9165, Article III, Section 36, signed into law by GMA, and is reaffirmed in the National Anti-Drug Plan of Action 2015-2020, set forth during P-Noy’s term.
Shaming of drug suspects? We’ve seen it in 2000 with Interior Secretary Alfredo Lim spray-painting the homes of suspected drug pushers, fully endorsed by then President Erap.
An opposition senator being linked to the drug trade? Before Leila de Lima, there was Ping Lacson, implicated by “Rosebud” Ong in 2001 — both of them leading the dramatis personae of those tempestuous times.
Death penalty for drug pushers?
Mr. Duterte wants it, GMA mulled it, but Ferdinand Marcos actually did it, overseeing the execution of Chinese drug lord Lim Seng by firing squad just a few months after he declared martial law.
Extrajudicial killings? It’s been happening for a long time—and not just in Davao City — though to a much lesser extent and with far less media coverage, as the Human Rights Watch Annual Report 2014 shows, among many others.
In light of this history, I worry that even after Mr. Duterte is gone, the “war on drugs” will once again be invoked by politicians for the same sinister ends. How can we prevent this from happening?
There are no easy, comprehensive answers to this question, but one key step is to change the way drug users and drugs are viewed by society. For decades, drug users, especially the poor ones, have been demonized, and drugs blamed for the most gruesome crimes. Indeed, from the 1970s, when Erap starred in a film called “Kill the Pushers,” to our time when Mr. Duterte is actually calling for the killing of drug pushers, the idea that drug “addicts” are the worst of criminals has been widely shared in our society.
The ethnographic picture, however, is very different. Various studies (including my own research) show that among poor communities, people use shabu (crystal meth) for a variety of reasons: to stay awake in order to work longer, to boost energy in order to perform manual tasks, to stave off hunger, or to forget their problems. While there are problematic (and criminal) drug users, the same can be said of alcoholics and power-drunk politicians: The human mind never required a dose of any chemical to be capable of harm or evil. Most drug users need help and rehabilitation — not death or punishment.
But society — including the media — has largely subscribed to the dominant narrative. “What a horrible act!” I recently heard one AM radio commentator say of a man who killed his mother. “The suspect must have been an adik because only adiks are capable of doing such things.”
This very low regard for drug users has made it possible for the President to call for their elimination and still maintain his popularity; in fact, such calls can boost his ratings. And so we must deal with an inconvenient truth: Many people know there is extrajudicial killing but approve of it, because like Mr. Duterte, they genuinely think that adiks don’t deserve to live.
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