Events of the last few weeks have put Vice President Leni Robredo in an unenviable position — first, being cajoled and hounded into taking up the mantle of leader in the failed war on drugs; and then, when she agreed to take up the position, being repeatedly mocked and derided by a new senator whose sole claim to fame is being the President’s top sycophant and selfie-taker. Robredo’s supporters rightly rally with her gracious (and frankly confounding) acceptance, but nothing changes the fact that the battle ahead is difficult, perhaps even impossible.
The war on drugs has rested on a culture which associates drug users with addicts, and all addicts with criminals and moral degenerates, for whom the appropriate solution should be either incarceration or killing. (Or, in the case of higher level drug lords, coddling.) Its proponents have stubbornly refused to recognize the drug problem as something complex and multifactorial, affected by social and health-related factors which are not so easily solved with guns and cudgels.
We haven’t learned from our brothers in the West, chief among them the United States, for whom the war on drugs since the last century has been aggressive and heavily funded, but which has still failed to quell the epidemic of narcotics use. We definitely haven’t learned from the example of places such as Portugal, which decriminalized drug use in 2001 and coupled this with a public health overhaul to address drug
dependence, ultimately leading to massive decreases in drug use as well as drug-related mortality and criminality. Proponents of our war on drugs clearly have failed to listen to what public health and addiction experts have been saying all along: that drugs are more of a health problem than chiefly a criminal one, and that there are benefits to managing the demand as much as managing supply and trafficking.
If the last few days are any indication, then we might assume that the Vice President aims for more humane drug-related policies than her predecessor. One hopes that more humane also means more evidence-based. There are no perfect programs which have completely eradicated drug use, but some places have achieved some success which might be replicated. These include states which have implemented measures to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison, assigning them to social workers who then help them seek assistance for health problems, homelessness, unemployment, frayed family relationships and other factors which contribute to drug dependence. Other strategies have included targeted education campaigns; access to free, clean needles to decrease transmission of infections by injection; the creation of rehabilitation centers which aren’t mere residences for drug surrenderers, but which are staffed by those trained in managing addiction; and access to therapies like methadone, an opioid substitute, which can help users to be weaned off drugs.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all about sitting down and crafting public health policies; true success appears impossible in the context of widespread poverty, homelessness and unemployment, which lead to despair and helplessness, which in turn majorly impact drug use and dependence. It’s also impossible without a cultural shift that changes our view of mere “addicts” to drug users struggling with a chronic, but treatable, health problem. It’s an uphill battle which could never have realistically been solved in six months, or even six years, by an administration, let alone by one person. One wishes that the Vice President’s detractors, who keep daring her to fail, would remember that more is at stake than petty personality politics and rivalries; but then to expect the President’s noisy sycophants to step back and see the bigger picture is, clearly, to expect too much.
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