The victims of war
Hundreds have died and thousands have voluntarily surrendered to authorities in the course of President Duterte’s war on drugs. And though his violent and urgent campaign has done much to bring the issue to the national conversation, it also reveals how ill-equipped our legal infrastructure is in dealing with the victims of this war. The infrastructure required for the rehabilitation of drug users is lacking, and the way our law treats drug offenders is unfair and dehumanizing.
Currently, drug addicts who are convicted of possession of dangerous drugs face extreme penalties. According to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 (Republic Act No. 9165), a drug convict can face life imprisonment and be fined from P500,000 to P10,000,000 simply for the possession of 10 grams of most illegal substances. These harsh penalties treat drug addicts in the same level as robbers and murderers. But this punitive approach to drug crime rests on a flawed assumption—that drug addiction is the addict’s fault.
We put murderers in prison because they chose to commit murder; we put robbers in prison because they chose to steal. But to make the same statement for drug users is to oversimplify the nature of addiction. Though the initial choice to take drugs is primarily the user’s, the physical dependence on the substance that follows is not. In fact, research in addiction reveals that it is not caused by a lack of will, but rather by a combination of biochemical and social factors that are outside the user’s control.
Biochemically, drugs have been found to alter the structure of the brain in order to create physical dependence. The result is not just an abstract desire for drugs, but also a physical need for the substance which manifests in severe withdrawal symptoms if the drugs are avoided. In addition, according to a Harvard Medical School health report, genetic research has shown that some people are predisposed to addiction, making them more susceptible to continued drug use.
A recent book by Johann Hari titled “Chasing the Scream” argues that drug dependence is fostered by feelings of social isolation. Hari cites a study that followed American troops in the Vietnam War: 20 percent of the soldiers were using heroin during the war, yet when they returned home, 95 percent of them went on to live their lives without an addiction to the drug. Hari argues that the stressful conditions created by the Vietnam War exacerbated the soldiers’ dependence—conditions that were no longer present back at home, where the soldiers had friends, family, and a support system. In other words, drug addiction isn’t just an individual choice; rather, it’s a consequence of adverse social factors.
But what these biochemical and social factors have in common is that they are primarily outside the drug user’s control. Once addiction sets in, the user cannot choose to physically reset his or her brain and remove his or her dependence; similarly, the user cannot choose to create a social environment that is more accepting and supporting.
Though the threat of life imprisonment and fines amounting to millions of pesos may on the surface deter people from using illicit substances, it does not strike at the heart of the problem. Fear of punishment does not eliminate the social conditions that lead to addiction. Neither does it eliminate the biological dependence on the drug that users gain. And a lifetime in prison or even the possibility of death is a needlessly harsh answer to an addiction that is often outside the user’s control.
Luckily, steps have been made in the right direction. RA 9165 also states that drug users can voluntarily submit to treatment and rehabilitation: This provision in the law is the beginning of what can hopefully become a rehabilitative approach to dealing with drug crimes. Additionally, under the Duterte administration, law enforcement is taking steps to crack down on the trade in illegal drugs, and thousands who have surrendered now undergo treatment and rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, more can be done. What of the many drug criminals who do not surrender voluntarily, due to many possible reasons—biological dependence, shame, ignorance of the possibility of treatment, or even a fear of being killed outside the law? Do they deserve the harsh penalties currently in place? And though the rehabilitation programs in place are admirable, are they effective enough to deal with the thousands of surrendering addicts?
Laying the groundwork for the rehabilitation of drug users will not be easy, and our political and social systems have a long way to go. But this is work that needs to be done—work that recognizes the humanity of drug users, and work that recognizes the purpose of the law as ultimately to uphold the rights of citizens. And this is work that needs to be done quickly as thousands of drug addicts will be convicted and incarcerated in a continuing campaign against drug use. It is inhumane for them to enter a legal system which still, for the most part, does not recognize the nature of their addiction.
President Duterte won the election with a powerful and admirable promise to change the broken systems present in Philippine politics and society—a corrupt government, an inefficient political bureaucracy, an unequal economy. It’s time for us to bring that change to the legal and social systems we have in place for dealing with drug users, and to rethink the punitive way we deal with drug-related crime.
Ethan Chua, 18, is an incoming freshman at Stanford University, a student journalist, and a spoken word poet.
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