Meanwhile, the drug war drags on
Because of the many issues that have plagued our country, public attention has moved away from drugs — even Vice President Leni Robredo’s brief stint as Icad chair feels like a distant memory — but the limited news reports suggest that “tokhang” is still going on even amid the pandemic: In late March, for instance, 19-year-old Denver Aying was killed in Cebu in circumstances similar to the EJKs in Metro Manila.
With the appointment of Wilkins Villanueva as new Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief, and with George Floyd reminding us of Kian delos Santos and many others killed in similarly brutal circumstances, it is a timely exercise to revisit our country’s drug policies. One way to do this is to use PDEA’s own framework, which, in its own words, consists of a “three-pronged strategy” of supply reduction, demand reduction, and harm reduction.
PDEA defines supply reduction as “disrupting the manufacturing and distribution supply chain of dangerous drugs through law enforcement,” and demand reduction as the approach that “reduces or prevents people from wanting to take illegal drugs based on scientific evidence and the fundamentals of freedom, dignity and human rights targeting vulnerable groups, and through mainstreaming of community involvement and participation.”
Meanwhile, harm reduction — a curious addition in the government’s policy discourse — is defined by the agency as “interventions that reduce the acute impacts of drug use.”
PDEA claims that the Duterte administration’s drug war is working partly on the basis of the P45 billion worth of illegal drugs that it has seized. In the course of my work as a drug policy researcher, I have had conversations with PDEA officials about the extent of the drug trade in the country, and I was actually impressed with their dedication to supply reduction efforts that have led to these seizures.
However, the fact that “shabu” continues to proliferate means these efforts have not been met with sustainable success. Drug lords remain at large, the mystery of drugs slipping through Customs remains unsolved, and it is the small-time pushers—e.g., those who turn to the drug trade for economic reasons—that remain disproportionately targeted by police operations.
As for “demand reduction,” it has largely consisted of fear-based campaigns and hackneyed slogans (“Get high on God, not with drugs”) that do not address the reasons why people use drugs in the first place. As ethnographic researches show, many people use shabu not out of addiction but out of need—for instance, truck drivers taking it to stay awake at night. Instead of improving their precarious environments, our drug policies criminalize mostly poor people, in the process bringing—as the latest Human Rights Watch report shows—“lasting physical, emotional, and economic harm” to thousands of children.
Finally, although PDEA speaks of “harm reduction,” its approach to drugs has been the exact opposite, with over- (instead of de-) criminalization, forced rehabilitation (instead of meaningful, community-based alternatives), mandatory drug testing, and other policies exacerbating—not reducing—physical, medical, and legal harms for people. Instead of being scaled up, effective harm reduction interventions like the pilot needle-syringe program in Cebu have been forbidden.
Informing our law enforcers’ priorities is the fact that many of them actually subscribe to the view that drugs are destroying our country and drug use is inherently evil; it does not hurt that fervent adherents of this view are also more likely to earn the President’s favor. Informing their priorities, too, is Republic Act No. 9165, the absurdly harsh, abuse-prone law that has enabled our punitive drug regime. Thus, despite the admission from some government officials that the drug war is a failure, it drags on.
Ultimately, we need legal and political reforms—and a paradigm shift in the way the public and policymakers alike view drugs.
In the meantime, the challenge for PDEA and its new chief is to make sure that its three-pronged approach is truly followed, and there is meaningful participation from various sectors, including people who use drugs themselves. Supply reduction must focus on “high value targets,” including corrupt officials and their foreign collaborators. Demand reduction must address the reasons drugs are used in the first place, and genuine harm reduction must support — not punish —people who use drugs.
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