Test drugs, not people | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Test drugs, not people

/ 05:13 AM July 14, 2023

Politicians love the idea of “drug testing”—that is, testing people for drug use—as a policy prescription. Former president Rodrigo Duterte did it throughout his term, and at one point, schools were scrambling to undergo Commission on Higher Education-required random drug testing, with Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) director general Aaron Aquino even campaigning for mandatory drug testing of “all” students, citing children as young as 10 being caught with drugs.

Today, the Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Benhur Abalos is also promoting drug testing, ordering more frequent random drug testing in DILG and threatening dismissal for those who test positive. He’s also getting private sector participation, touting a deal with more than 100 companies, claiming that “If employees participate in these drug tests, the war on drugs in the workplace will change, which I assure you we will win.”

The logic of drug tests is that it will detect people who use drugs so they can be referred for either treatment or punishment, and that it will deter people from using drugs.


This logic, however, is problematic, and so is the policy of drug testing itself.


First and foremost, the practice reflects and reinforces the misguided premise that “all drug use” needs some kind of surveillance as a step toward punitive or rehabilitative responses. In fact, drug use is a vast spectrum of human experiences and most drug use requires—if anything—support, not punishment, not even treatment. For instance, as the drug scholar Leonardo Estacio wrote in 2009, the context of “shabu” use calls for social support and empathy, given that what really harms them is the stigma, not the drug use:

“For example, in an urban poor community, out of school youths could be attracted to try drug use probably to fill a need for an antidote to boredom. In time, this creates an image of the community to be unsafe, sick, and immoral, and as a haven for drug users … This kind of public image would in turn further marginalize this community from economic and social opportunities … Consequently, this further pushes the community down in the spiral of poverty and its concomitant social and health problems.”

Secondly, testing people for drug use creates barriers to employment and education, hurting instead of helping people. “Drug testing is our modern day witch hunt. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and is a harmful persecution of people who use drugs,” as the physician-lawyer Lee Yarcia tells me. “Employees who test positive can be fired from gainful work while students are expelled from schools. Even the WHO/UNODC (World Health Organization/United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) International Standards on Drug Use Prevention specifically recommends against drug testing in schools not only due to its lack of efficacy and effectiveness, but also because of its adverse effects; it is not recommended as an intervention by itself in workplaces.”

Third, drug testing—especially when mandated for institutions—costs a lot of money that could have been far better spent elsewhere. PDEA’s proposal to test students, for instance, would have cost an estimated P2.8 billion; surely, DILG’s resources can be better spent elsewhere. As Yarcia notes, “What has been proven to work are supportive policies and services like comprehensive health promotion, mental health programs, and livelihood support. Drug testing is not evidence-based; we should not waste our taxpayers’ money on it.”

What needs to be tested are the drugs themselves, given how their untested state is the one that’s actually posing real danger to people.

In 2016, for instance, five people died after an SM Mall of Asia party after allegedly taking illegal drugs; Ecstasy was one of the suspected substances but then and now, people really don’t know what they’re taking, in contrast to other countries where drug checking is done as a harm reduction measure. In 2019, a 19-year-old female died in a pre-Sinulog concert in Cebu, with police themselves attributing it to “adulterated” ecstasy.


Alas, such pragmatic and evidence-based measures can never take place unless and until Republic Act No. 9165—the same law that requires mandatory random testing in schools and workplaces and mandates harsh penalties for even low-level drug offenses—is amended, and unless President Marcos commits to sweeping drug policy reform.

Beyond illegal drugs, we are drowning in untested, unregulated substances, from cosmetics promoted on TikTok and sold in online stores, to supplements sold in drugstores and supermarkets. Notwithstanding reports of mercury-containing skin whitening cosmetics, and notwithstanding warnings from the Department of Health and the Food and Drug Administration about bogus therapeutic claims, untested products continue to be sold to Filipinos, exposing them to unknown risks and harms.

Test drugs, not people.


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