Drugs as accusation | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Drugs as accusation

/ 05:13 AM February 02, 2024

Over the past week, we have heard some of our most powerful politicians trade accusations of drug use.

First, we have former president Rodrigo Duterte lashing out at his successor, calling him a “drug addict and a drug addict now as president,” and claiming that he was on the drug watch list of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) (a claim that was belied by the agency in a statement). During the 2022 campaign, he had raised the same accusation, prompting the then-candidate to release results of a drug test.

“I think it’s the fentanyl,” President Marcos said in reply, likewise alluding to past drug use that the former president himself had disclosed, back in 2016, saying that it was used to relieve pain from a motorcycle accident. “Fentanyl is the strongest pain killer that you can buy,” Marcos continued, adding: “After five, six years, it has to affect him, that’s why I think this is what has happened.”


Drugs as accusation—from allegations of being involved in the drug trade to simply using drugs—is nothing new in Philippine politics. It was used extensively and quite effectively by Duterte, and perhaps there is no better example than former senator Leila de Lima, who, thank God, is finally free. Mayors and other local executives lived in fear of being included in “watch lists” implicating them and sometimes ominously serving as precursors to their being killed, or, like Iloilo City’s Jed Mabilog, going into hiding.


As with many features of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, this practice is nothing new, and has been a hallmark of Philippine politics for decades, as Ping Lacson knows very well. During the 2022 elections, most of the candidates signified willingness to undergo a drug test to rid themselves of this liability, and critics themselves—both of Duterte and Marcos—have latched onto allegations of drug use and continue to do so today.

The power of these accusations lie in the sense of exceptionalism and moral panic that people have toward drugs. Having been presented and perceived as a “pernicious” social evil that is destroying the country, drugs tap into the people’s fears and prejudices. Thus, resorting to exceptional measures to deal with them have found public acceptance—hence the popularity of Duterte’s drug war. In the same way that Duterte legitimized the use of “tokhang” to kill individuals, he successfully used drugs to legitimize the political (and physical) destruction of political enemies. Even if, like De Lima, they manage to get legal vindication (the former senator tells me that she never lost faith in the justice system), they might find themselves already judged as guilty by the court of public opinion.

Beyond its political implications, however, I would argue that there is an even more “pernicious” effect of this practice (to use a favorite term by authorities to describe drug effects) and that is, to perpetuate the misguided idea that drugs are the greatest evil in the country—and to demonize drug use in ways that hold back drug policy reform.

Note how Duterte jumps from Marcos’ alleged “drug use” to being an “addict,” and then to being on the “PDEA watch list,” as though drug use alone is sufficient to make someone both socially unacceptable (e.g., “adik”) and legally liable (e.g., “watch list”). Note, conversely, how Marcos dismisses his predecessor’s claims on the basis of his alleged fentanyl use. Such a discourse—regardless of what it accomplishes for the political actors involved—reinforces people’s prejudices about drugs and the people who use them. By attributing their actions to being “high on drugs,” we somehow dilute their responsibility.

Drug use is a complex issue. As the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has repeatedly affirmed in its World Drug Reports, many people who use drugs do so without causing any problems for themselves and for others, and the majority of those who do need support (e.g., medical and mental health services, economic opportunities)—not punishment. When it comes to drugs, we need an open-minded discussion about decriminalization and drug policy reform, not an invocation of different substances to denigrate individuals.

Some accusations, of course, can have basis and must be taken seriously, including those related to the drug trade and the drug war, such as the ones being raised by Arturo Lascañas; like many illegal activities in the country—from illegal logging in the Sierra Madre to smuggling in Davao—it is hard to imagine how they can take place without the participation of elected officials.


But making it appear as though drugs are the greatest evil in the country detracts attention from the obscene corruption, greed, inaction, and exploitation of our people and the environment that constitute a far graver threat to the nation. The late Conrado de Quiros could not have said it better, in words written in 2003 but speak truth to power today: “There is a drug that addles the brain more surely and swift than ‘shabu,’ as I know form seeing my friends who have gotten into government. That is unbridled power.”


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TAGS: drugs, opinion

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