THE Philippines has been reported as a point of origin, transit and destination of illegal drugs. In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte cited that “… drugs have destroyed the lives of many people, relationships and marriages, a problem that has been the root of criminalities, and breakdowns on families.” The President was also quoted recently stating that, “drugs still abound,” and that he considered “… shabu as a national security threat, and among the top problems in the country.” He had previously declared his intention to “… solve decisively this problem,” adding, “Or else, the 3 million 700 thousand (drug addicts and drug pushers) will compromise the next generation of Filipinos.”
The Dangerous Drugs Board 2015 survey on the extent of drug abuse in the country tallied 1.8 million drug users nationwide. About 4.8 million have also used illegal drugs once in their lives. In 2017, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) pegged the estimates at 4.7 million users. Of the 42,036 barangays in the country, 49.65 percent, or 20,872 barangays, are considered drug-affected. Some 13,920 (66.7 percent) or 13,920, are classified as slightly affected; 6,744 (32.3 percent) are moderately affected; while 208 barangays (one percent) are seriously affected.
In addition, there is the emerging trend of international drug syndicates using drug couriers in transporting illegal drugs, particularly overseas Filipino workers. In 1993, PDEA recorded two arrests abroad for drug trafficking. Today, this number has reached a high of 170. This rise was attributed to the prevalence of poverty, poor educational background, easy money, unemployment, and the idea of traveling that entice drug couriers.
Over the years, the use of minors by illegal drug syndicates is a disturbing trend. From 2011 to 2016, a total of 956 minors were involved in drug-related cases, with the youngest a six-year-old. More international drug syndicates also operate in the country, including the Africans, Sinaloa cartel, Chinese or Chinese-Filipino and Iranian drug syndicates.
Moreover, drug syndicates have also gotten more sophisticated in their operations, using bank-to-bank transactions, and communications and financial technology. Recent news reports also indicate that this problem is no longer confined to hardened criminals: there are reports of government officials, law enforcement, and businessmen being involved in the illegal drug trade.
Need for new responses
We fully support the government’s efforts to stop the drug menace in society. The government employs five pillars of action in its war against illegal drugs: drug supply reduction, drug demand reduction, alternative development, civic awareness and responses, and regional and international cooperation.
Since 1999, the barangay drug abuse councils and local government units are mandated to address the drug problem in the community given the direct impact of illegal drug abuse on the community. However, experts have noted challenges to the demand reduction strategies. For example, PDEA is unable to conduct anti-drug operations in seaports and maritime areas, unless supported by relevant agencies. Other researchers call for intensified drug abuse prevention, and treatment and rehabilitation programs.
Looking at the experience of other countries, strategies addressing the drug problem have evolved. Some states in the United States allow the medical use of marijuana, and recently, recreational use of the drug. Switzerland reportedly provides free heroin for the heroin addicts, deemed successful in reducing the number of drug addicts. As Open Society points out, the approaches in Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and the Czech Republic work. Such approaches focus their policies on public health, pragmatism, safety and security.
After decades of evolving drug policy, Netherlands offers lessons that the Philippines can take inspiration from. In Open Society’s Coffeeshops and Compromise, the Dutch policy to separate illicit drugs with “unacceptable risk” (hard drugs) and those with “acceptable risk” (soft drugs, or cannabis) provided the environment to address heroin-related problems more effectively.
The Dutch drug policy approach has proven more effective than more repressive regimes. Decriminalization of soft drugs does not increase drug use. In addition, cannabis users in Amsterdam are less likely to use cocaine, than marijuana users in the United States. Further, cannabis use in Amsterdam are at par with their European counterparts, and lower than their counterparts with stricter environments.
The liberal Dutch drug policy is not without challenges. Yet its metrics shows that it works. The Philippines needs to have the conversation to find a just and lasting solution to the drug menace in the country – taking into account what worked, and what needs to be improved in terms of public health, and criminal justice. In this regard, we are grateful that the current leadership has the political will to resolve this crisis. Hopefully, what comes next, learning from the past failures and successes, can carry us further towards a lasting solution to this problem, and ultimately achieve a drug-free Philippines.
The author holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School, a master in international relations (with merit) from Victoria University of Wellington, and BA in Political Science from the University of the Philippines Diliman.