Harsh crackdown methods have failed to solve the drug problem in the Philippines
- Duterte said that Sri Lanka could be a partner in addressing the trafficking of illegal drugs
- Almost four million out of 106 million Filipinos were classified as drug addicts*The drug lords have managed to dodge the police
- prevalence rate” of drug use by Filipinos is 2.3% which is roughly half the global average
- According to practicing psychologists, there is no such thing as an “incurable drug addiction
It is disconcerting to read that Sri Lanka has sought the help of the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte to control the drug menace in the island when it is well-known that Duterte’s lawless and murderous approach has been condemned by human rights groups and psychologists both within and outside the Philippines.
Furthermore, Duterte’s methods have failed to deliver the goods. The street price of a popular drug like Shabu (methamphetamine or meth) had come down even as an estimated 12,000 lives were sacrificed at the altar of the drug elimination drive between 2016 and 2017.
“The war against crime and drugs carried out by you (Duterte) is an example to the whole world, and personally, to me. The drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow in your footsteps to control this hazard,” President Sirisena had said in his speech at the State banquet given at Malacanang last week according to CNN Philippines.
In his speech, Duterte said that Sri Lanka could be a partner in addressing the trafficking of illegal drugs.
And sure enough, the matter figured in the Joint Statement issued on Sunday. “Both sides acknowledged the threat that crime and illegal drugs pose to society and affirmed their desire to strengthen cooperation and to share relevant experiences and best practices,” the Joint Statement said.
Since Duterte was elected President in 2016, the Philippines police and state-backed vigilante groups have eliminated 5,000 to 12,000 suspected drug dealers and users. Exact numbers cannot be ascertained because most of the killings are unofficial and extra-judicial.
Apparently, the drug menace in the Philippines in 2016-2017 was indeed appalling. As per the US State Department’s 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, addiction to Shabu (methamphetamine or meth) was the most significant drug problem of the Philippines. A UN World Drug Report tagged the Philippines as the country having the highest rate of Shabu use in the whole of East Asia.
The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines released a pastoral letter expressing concern about the proliferation of the drug problem in the country and the alleged involvement of Government officials.
“While people would only whisper about police officials being drug protectors in connivance with Mayors or Governors, President Rodrigo Duterte had taken the unprecedented step of disclosing the names of high ranking police and Government officials allegedly involved in illegal drugs,” the Philippine Star reported.
Estimates of the annual drug trade ranged from Peso 350 billion to Peso 500 billion (US$ 66.3 million to US$ 94.7 million). According to a report by the Philippine National Police, about 27% or 11,321 of the total 42,026 Barangays (the smallest administrative units) in Philippines were infiltrated by illegal drugs, with the situation being worse in Metro Manila. Almost four million out of 106 million Filipinos were classified as drug addicts, the paper said.
Drugs like Shabu were smuggled from China and the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and North Thailand. Given its enormous coastline and porous borders, the Philippines had become an international transit point for drugs.
To combat the menace, President Duterte allowed the police and even civilians to kill drug dealers and users. According to Amnesty International, the Government pays policemen and vigilantes for killing suspected drug users and dealers.
“We always get paid by the encounter.The amount ranges from 8,000 pesos (US$151) to 15,000 pesos (US$ 284). That amount is per head. So if the operation is against four people, that’s 32,000 pesos (US$ 606). We’re paid in cash, secretly, by headquarters.There’s no incentive for arresting. We’re not paid anything. It never happens that there’s a shootout and no one is killed,” a Metro Manila police officer told Amnesty.
According to another estimate, in any raid, 97% of the suspects were killed. Hundreds of innocents, including children, have been killed in the shootouts. Most of the dead are small time operators if not innocents. The drug lords have managed to dodge the police.
Duterte has been continually criticised for his methods by Filipino human rights activists, the Philippine Association of Psychologists and the media, but his answer would always be the same: that his strategy has worked, that it has the backing of the masses (according to a survey 85% back him), and that those who protest deserve to be killed.
He once told a journalist in an open press conference: “Just because you are a journalist it does not mean that you are exempted from assassination!”
Despite threats, critics maintain the chant that Duterte’s murderous strategy has not worked. Davao city, where the anti-drugs campaign was started when Duterte was Mayor for 22 years, is even today the crime capital of the Philippines.
If the President’s strategy has been working, why are prices of Shabu and other dangerous drugs going down and not going up, his critics ask. In 2016, the street price of a gram of Shabu was US$ 24. But in 2017, it had come down to US$ 20.
It is also pointed out that the criminalisation of the drug trade and drug use has driven the activity underground. Once it goes underground the difficulties in effectively curbing it mount. Because it has gone underground, those still in the business are the hardcore and the hardened elements who know how to dodge the long arm of the law. In other words, the problem is more intractable now than before.
Critics also say that Duterte has been exaggerating the drug problem. According to a report in The Guardian the “prevalence rate” of drug use by Filipinos is 2.3% which is roughly half the global average.
The Philippine Association of Psychologists has been urging Duterte to switch over from brutal suppression to capturing addicts and rehabilitating them. The latter technique has worked in many countries, including those of the Third World, they point out.
According to practising psychologists, there is no such thing as an “incurable drug addiction”. There are various kinds of drug users. Not all are drug dependent or drug “addicts”. In most cases, OPD treatment would suffice with community and family support, they say. The Philippines authorities are a good 30 years behind the West in understanding the real nature of the drug problem. Drug use is still seen as a law and order issue, not as a medical condition which can be treated.
There is a need for improvement in the rehabilitation centres which now house about 96,000 surrendees. They are of very poor quality.
Sri Lanka to be cautious
Though President Sirisena has a good impression of Duterte’s drug menace suppression program and though he is seeking the help of the Philippines drug control authorities, it is certain that he will not replicate Duterte’s unlawful methods, especially extra-judicial killing.
An official of the Government of Sri Lanka clarified that the President’s team was interested in the detection methods and detection strategies used by the Philippines police. Sri Lanka is a democratic country where even a death sentence given by the highest court is not carried out, the official pointed out.
Of course, President Sirisena had announced that he would sanction the carrying out of death sentences against drug traffickers who continue to run their drug trade from the death row itself. But till to date, no such convict has been identified and hanged.
And drugs are not a major problem in Sri Lanka. According to the Alcohol and Drug Information Center, there are an estimated 80,000 drug users in a total population of 20 million.
But as in the Philippines, drug abuse is criminalized in Sri Lanka. Drug addicts and traffickers fill Lankan jails. And as in the Philippines, little or no attention is paid here to rehabilitation and treatment.
Inadequate and ineffective rehabilitation has resulted in 70-80% of the addicted getting back to addiction after rehabilitation. This calls for a holistic approach which includes the involvement of the addict’s peer group, his family and the surrounding society in the rehabilitation process.