Drug war won’t end with Duterte in jail

Drug war won’t end with Duterte in jail

/ 05:03 AM February 29, 2024

Tides are turning against those who instigated the war on drugs under the previous administration. Despite President Marcos’ pronouncement that he will “not lift a finger” to assist the International Criminal Court in its probe on former president Rodrigo Duterte’s crimes against humanity, recent events have pointed to growing apprehension in the Duterte camp. The ongoing rift between the Dutertes and Marcoses further creates a fragile situation that will keep the drug war instigators constantly on their toes.

Undoubtedly, the arrest of Duterte and his ilk would be a big step toward justice for the drug war victims and their aggrieved families. But beyond Duterte’s arrest, there are critical issues fundamental to moving past the war on drugs. First, we must have a thorough accounting of the harm caused by this war; second, a progressive drug policy alternative must be laid out, and finally, we need to change the narrative toward a more humane approach to substance abuse.

Any effort for reform must start with a clear and honest assessment of what happened previously. The death toll is a common way to start. The number of deaths alone is enough to trigger outrage, although as the corpses piled up, the staggering numbers slowly lost their shock value. Near the end of Duterte’s term, only the organization Dahas continues to keep tabs on the death toll. Sadder still is the fact that the killings are just a sliver of the harm done. Children have to bear the trauma of seeing their fathers shot. Distrust prevails in barangays where neighbors and local officials listed “drug suspects” in their own community. Professional groups who were expected to push for an evidence-informed health policy fell silent, with some subscribing to the hegemony on substance use.


Much of the harm can hardly be quantified. But unless we attempt to have a government and civil society review of the war on drugs, we run the risk of leaving these societal wounds gaping and historical accounts twisted in the future. Civil society organizations would agree that there is always a better policy alternative to prohibitive and punitive approaches toward people who use drugs.


As someone who observes the drug policy space, I know that different stakeholders have different approaches. Some groups would advocate complete abstinence from drug use as the ultimate goal, while some would focus more on reducing the harm associated with it. Others will frame drug use as a mental health problem that requires treatment, while some would think twice before calling nonproblematic drug use a pathology. As we move past the drug war approach, there is a need to get these ideas openly discussed rather than sitting alongside each other in harmony without a clear and nuanced direction for reform.

Recent conversations on amending Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act as facilitated by the United Nations Joint Programme for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Philippines provide a good starting point. While doing so, we need to recognize that in most instances, these differences are not mutually exclusive. Having open conversations can be a starting point for building consensus. Lastly, there must be a deliberate effort to change the narrative around substance use and get the public onboard.

Remember how people cheered when Duterte promised to kill the “addicts”? Public opinion has not changed significantly since then. In tirades between former and current presidents where one accused the other of drug use, it doesn’t take much for the internalized stigma on drug use to resurface. This highlights the need for a strong narrative change initiative to reframe how the issue of drugs is perceived by Filipinos. The toolkit for responsible drug reporting released by the Drug Policy Reform Initiative is a good step toward changing how stories are told by the media. Knowing that policymakers are sensitive to public opinion, drug reform advocates must work toward shifting the public perception on drug use toward more humane approaches. This will prevent a repeat of a Duterte-like drug war.

There are many problematic aspects in the current approach to drug use, and stakeholders might not have the ready solutions to all these challenges. But one thing is clear: Jail Duterte, but continue to work harder to end the drug war. Start with coordinated efforts by civil society toward a rights-based approach to substance abuse. Only when we have reversed the multiple harm caused by drug use, institutionalized a more progressive policy, and substantially changed perceptions on it at the community level can we start thinking that the war on drugs has ended.


RJ Naguit is a medical doctor currently studying health policy, planning, and financing at the London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He is a member of Akbayan Party and a volunteer for the International Drug Policy Consortium and Release.

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TAGS: drug war, ICC, Jail, opinion, Rodrigo Duterte

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