Drug Addiction in The Philippines, Deadly in More Than One Way
As the argument over drug addiction in America has become amplified recently due to the opioid epidemic, we are not the only country which is battling the disease of addiction. In the Philippines the war on drugs, and drug addiction, has been accelerating at an alarming pace in recent years. However, perhaps the most disconcerting thing about drug addiction in the Philippines is not the amount of drug users and dealers, but the way that their government has chosen to act against it.
Unlike in America, where users and distributors of illegal drugs face prosecution which includes potential jail or prison time, in The Philippines drug users and dealers are in mortal danger of being murdered without trial or due process by vigilantes or even police officers. This has all come about since the election and inauguration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte which took place on June, 30th 2016. Since Duterte took office, federal and local police forces have drastically intensified the enforcement of his new drug policy which has openly called for drug addicts and drug dealers to be murdered without trial. According to Human Rights Watch, an international organization which advocates for human rights across the globe, as many as 7,000 extrajudicial killings have taken place in the country since Duterte took office.
While the lives that have been lost due to this vicious policy are nothing short of a tragedy, what is going on in The Philippines right now highlights a problem with drug addiction that has no borders. This issue is the widespread misconception about the nature of drug addiction and how to handle it within a society. Make no mistake, drug abuse is a global issue. A 2015 study done by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that a total of 246 million people worldwide consume drugs. While not all of those people who consume drugs are addicted, a significant percentage of them are. The problem arises when societies make misinformed decisions on how to handle drug addiction, like the case in The Philippines where the state has open called for their violent eradication. This creates a culture of fear surrounding the use and sale of drugs, however fear is not enough to override the supremely powerful biological processes which are at the core of drug addiction.
Duterte’s war on drug addiction
Duterte has been known for his highly radicalized stance against crime, particularly drug use, since he was elected as the mayor of the Philippine city Davo City in 1988. As mayor of Davo City, Duterte rallied heavily for many legislative regulations to be placed on things like the consumption of alcohol and the enforcement of drug laws. While these various legislations prove that Duterte has a very passionate stance on substance abuse issues, what is particularly alarming are the numerous reports of extrajudicial killings in the city by the police force. While Duterte has consistently denied any formal responsibility for these murders, his anti-drug rhetoric has never been a secret. He has been quoted countless times making reference to and encouraging the vigilante killing of any criminals in Davo City and now the entire country.
In 2015 Duterte began to campaign for the 2016 Philippine presidential election. During his campaign one of his major talking points was to clearly mention his intentions to crack down on crime across the country, making a specific point to focus on drug addiction. Much of this came in the form of continued encouragement for police and vigilante murders of drug addicts and drug dealers. Duterte even outright promised to kill tens of thousands of criminals and cleanse the country of drug addiction in the process. These talking points resonated with a significant portion of the country as he eventually won the presidential election with 39.01% of the vote, over 15% more than his next closest competitor.
Since his election, Duterte has wasted no time encouraging the police force as well as the general population to take aim at drug addiction in the form of extrajudicial killings and vigilante violence. Human Rights Watch has estimated in the 13 months since his election there have been around 7,000 murders of drug users or distributors, all without due process of the Philippine legal system.
These killings have been largely supported by the Philippine public and Duterte continues to garner very strong support from the people even as many officials outside of the country have strongly condemned them. Duterte has also faced some opposition from members of the Philippine Senate. Although these oppositional voices are currently the minority, as most of the government seems to be dominated by political allies of the president. Still, there are some signs that the government and perhaps the people as well are starting to sour to Duterte’s ruthless stance towards drug addiction.
The turning point?
Just last week, a 17 year old named Kian Loyd delos Santos was shot and killed by police in the Manila suburb of Caloocan City. While this is only one of thousands of these types of murders which have taken place under the watch of Duterte, some in the Philippines are calling it a turning point in the brutal nightmare which has gripped the entire country for more than a year. The murder has come during a week in which there have been 96 reported extrajudicial killings in the Manila area alone, which would be by far the bloodiest week since Duterte took office last summer. The police are referring to it as a “one-time, big-time” crackdown on drug addiction and criminals.
While Duterte has enjoyed very high approval ratings since his election, mostly due to his public crackdown on drug addiction, continued evidence of police misconduct, planting of evidence and unwarranted murders of teenagers has begun to make some people think twice. In the case of delos Santos, police originally claimed that he was killed in an exchange of gunfire which he initiated towards police. However, leaked security camera footage apparently shows the police leading delos Santos away from his home to a nearby basketball court. The video then appears to show police hand delos Santos a gun and allow him to run away before shooting him down seconds later.
Evidence which is contrary to police claims about these types of killings is not uncommon, however their increasing frequency is beginning to raise alarms within the Philippine government as well as the public in general. In the last few days the Philippine Senate has opened an official investigation into these extrajudicial killings and many citizens are beginning to speak out loudly against the practice of murdering drug users and dealers in cold blood. This is a small ray of hope for the country as they face a critical point in their future of dealing with the disease of addiction. Changes in current vicious policy are not likely to occur unless the public overwhelmingly rejects them and calls for a more humane and effective plan for dealing with drug use across the country.
The fundamental misunderstanding of drug addiction
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this whole situation is the reason that these murders have continued to take place across The Philippines. Duterte has long been a staunch advocate of cleansing the country of drug addiction, which is in itself not a radical or controversial stance. The way in which he is attempting to reach his goal is however. Not only are the thousands of extrajudicial killings across the country immoral, they are going to proves to be ultimately ineffective.
According to estimations by the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency there were around 3 million drug addicts across the country 2 years ago. In the past year the same agency has estimated that the number may be around 3.7 million. While the method for the retrieval of this data is unknown, the fact that the federal agency responsible for enforcing drug laws in the country is claiming that there are more, not less, drug addicts after a year of Duterte’s violent policy point to its ineffectiveness.
This is not surprising as there are countless examples of countries across the globe attempting to stem drug addiction using strict law enforcement and punishment methods. Almost all of these countries, including the United States, have failed to make a significant dent in their drug problems with punishment alone. Instead, most examples of countries that have made significant progress in this area have done so with much different methods and a completely opposite approach to the nature of drug addiction.
These success stories in countries like Germany, Switzerland and Norway have come about with a push for more easily accessible treatment options for those who are addicted to drugs and a considerable decrease in the severity and frequency of criminal punishment for things like the possession of controlled substances. This is due to the fact that research over the past few decades has clearly shown that addiction is a brain disease and not a circumstance of poor morals or choice. Those who struggle with drug addiction have brain chemistry which is fundamentally altered in a way which keeps them from making rational decisions. Just like any other disease, the only apparent way to alter this malfunctioning biological process is with medical treatment. In the case of drug addiction this treatment usually comes in the form of some form of therapy in a residential or outpatient setting.
Because of the stigma associated with drug addiction in The Philippines however, treatment is almost nonexistent and those struggling with substance abuse are forced to live in fear of their lives. This creates a difficult situation where those who may want to get help may be afraid to seek it out of fear for their lives. Because of this, Duterte’s plan to cleanse the country of drug addicts and dealers can only work if the extrajudicial killings and vigilante murders were to reach unprecedented levels. Even if the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agencies estimate of 3.7 million drug addicts in the country is inflated, there are most likely millions of people in the country that do indeed suffer from substance abuse. That being said, killing millions of people because of a disease that they are afflicted with would reach a level of tragedy that has very few parallels in human history.
The only realistic way forward for The Philippines, and any country for that matter, is to shift the focus away from strict legal enforcement and punishment of drug addiction towards the more modern and effective concept of treating the disease which is at the core of the issue. There is a way to stem the global tide of addiction, but it cannot occur until societies begin to fundamentally change their views on its very nature.