HONESTLY, I really pity Leni Robredo. She is now afflicted with a reverse Midas touch syndrome, where she is trashed for anything she touches and says. She is also suffering from a partial Cassandra effect, where she is not taken seriously, even if what she is saying may be the truth, or makes sense.
When she urged the Duterte government to consider studying the case of Portugal with regard to its policy of decriminalizing drug use, all hell broke loose. What appeared as merely a suggestion on her part to study that policy option took the character of an unwarranted meddling, and the real sense of what she said was lost in translation. And it did not help that she pleaded that she was just misquoted.
It is so frustrating since this is one of those rare instances that she is in fact making sense. And it was a rare moment when I agreed with her.
I am not exactly sure how much of the noise is bred by people’s dislike of her. What is certain is that she effectively undermined the value of her policy recommendations not because it is flawed but because it came from her.
People have jumped to the wrong conclusion that decriminalization is legalization, when in fact technically the two are not necessarily the same.
It is frustrating that healthy debate has been sidelined, and what has taken over is political partisanship and personality-oriented bashing.
But the debate on what should be our long-term drug policy should go beyond Leni Robredo, as it must transcend partisan politics. President Duterte has only a little bit over five more years in office, and we should be thinking of a more sustainable policy on how to deal with the drug problem. Evidence suggests that an all-out war on drugs should not and must not rest solely on a hardline approach. Thailand tried an iron-fist policy, but it did not completely eradicate the problem. As it is, President Duterte is in fact already delayed in his time-table, and he admitted that the problem may in fact need more than six months, contrary to what he promised during the campaign.
The problem is complex. And it will not help if people, in frustration and anger, simplify what is complicated.
There are many players in the drug trade. There are the dealers and their protectors. There are also the users. There are dealers and protectors who are also users. But there are also users who are not involved in dealing drugs.
At the outset, it should be emphasized that decriminalizing drug use does not require legalization.
Instead, the policy option of decriminalizing drug use is a specific strategy that isolates the act and makes it separable from the criminal element of the drug trade. In this policy scenario, only the act of selling drugs, as well as the act profiting from it, are considered criminal. This would therefore include not only the sellers but also their enablers and protectors.
Drug use becomes criminal only when the user is involved in other crimes, such as theft, rape and murder. Drug possession becomes prima facie evidence for a crime only when the possessor is a trader and not just a user.
Social media, triggered by Leni Robredo’s suggestion to consider decriminalization, erupted in a cacophony of voices that missed the fact that our policy environment already has decriminalized drug use in some instances.
Even the President’s anti-drug war campaign has reflected this, which is why drug rehabilitation centers are being built, and funds are earmarked to integrate drug rehabilitation in the activities of the LGUs, and of health and social welfare departments.
Even the courts have integrated rehabilitation into their procedures. Drug users who voluntarily submit to the court just undergo a special proceeding that is not criminal in nature, and hence no criminal record attaches to them. Instead, they are just directed to undergo mandatory rehabilitation.
Drug users who are caught in police operations, but are found to be mere users, and are first-time offenders, and are not involved in other crimes, undergo a criminal proceeding. However, they do not serve jail terms like ordinary criminals, but are instead ordered by the court to undergo rehabilitation.
In the workplace, some private companies deal with drug use among their employees not as offenses, but as a health issue. Hence, instead of punitive measures, the employees are sent for rehabilitation treatment, the cost of which may even be shouldered by the company.
Thus, it is clear that de facto decriminalization of drug use is already operational in some instances.
What can be drawn from Leni Robredo’s suggestion, to which I concur despite my fundamental differences with her on many other matters, is for us to study and seriously consider how to further institutionalize this in our drug policy.
It must also be emphasized that decriminalization of drug use is not designed to negate the criminal nature of the drug trade. After all, rehabilitation of drug users is not in any way contradictory to inflicting on the traders and their enablers the full weight of the law, which even if I oppose it, may include the death penalty, if and when Congress will reinstate it.