December 1, 2017

Philippines’ drug war: Attacking the symptom of a larger problem

by Johsa Manzanilla  (Published in Pilipino Express December 1-15)

A couple weeks ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that he brought up human rights and extrajudicial killings in a discussion with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on his war on drugs. Trudeau claimed Duterte was “receptive to [his] comments, and [that] it was … a cordial and positive exchange.” When Duterte was asked at a news conference about how he responded, he stated it was a “personal and official insult” and that he “only answer[s] to the Filipino… not… to any other bullshit, especially [from] foreigners.”

It is interesting to see Duterte lash out at Trudeau, disregarding his comments as coming from a “foreign” perspective, given that there is a critical perspective and analysis amongst Filipinos of the President’s policy to addressing drug abuse in the country. These include Filipinos living on the Philippine islands as well as abroad. While Duterte was elected by a landslide in June 2016 – 6.6 million more than the candidate who came in second – recent polls are suggesting that his approval rate is dropping. It is worth mentioning that this drop has been in poor, urban areas, where many residents have become part of the statistic of over 7,000 individuals killed for allegedly being drug dealers or users. This is despite them making up a large part of Duterte’s support base during last year’s campaign.

Illegal drug abuse has become a widespread and pervasive public health issue in the Philippines. There has been much debate around a comprehensive strategy and actionable solutions to address the issue. On one hand is prevention and treatment – on the other, sanctioned elimination by murder. While the second method seems straightforward – eliminating the problem by literally terminating the lives of people who are allegedly currently involved, there is no evidence that would suggest that this would lead to the complete eradication of addiction and criminality related to illegal substances.

Based on the Philippine government’s Drug Dependency Examination, there are a number of levels or categories of “drug user,” depending on one’s level of drug use: experimenter, social recreational user, habitual user, drug abuser, and drug dependent. While experimenters, social recreational users and habitual users can be treated in outpatient centres, drug abusers and drug dependents have developed a syndrome in that they lose control over their use and their mental processes are affected. This is why for drug dependents, also referred to as “addicts,” basic needs become re-ordered – where drugs supersede food, shelter, clothing and healthy relationships. Drug addiction is a disease that is misunderstood. While treatable, treatment acknowledges a cycle of repeated relapse – interventions are not a one-time thing, but require a long-term, holistic approach, such as in the treatment of other chronic diseases.

It is important to ask the questions that look at the core of the problem – to find the heart of the beast, instead of just chopping off parts of it only to have them spontaneously regenerate. What are the root causes? What are the underlying factors? Why are people buying and using drugs? Why is there a demand? And what is the most effective way of stopping the demand?


In the slums of the Philippines, street children sniff a solvent called “rugby” in plastic bags to alleviate their hunger pangs. Others, the working poor, smoke, snort, inject or swallow shabu, also known as crystal meth, to stay awake at night in order to earn a bit more money.

Addiction does not discriminate; it can affect anyone, regardless of socio-economic status, sex or gender, age, or culture. That being said, it is the most vulnerable in the Philippines who are the most affected. They are drawn to substance use to survive, excluded from treatment because of a lack of resources, and susceptible to being murdered if alleged to be using or struggling from addiction.

Drug use is a symptom of a much larger problem. Attacking one symptom of the problem does not get rid of the problem. Land-grabbing from farmers and the economic dominance of foreign-controlled, hegemonic companies leads to corruption and disempowerment of Philippine industry. Without home grown production, Filipinos experience poverty, high unemployment, and are forced to emmigrate in search of better opportunities. Unfortunately, the killing of one portion of the population will not fix any of these problems, nor is it likely to yield a solution.

As we approach International Human Rights Day on December 10, and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights next year, it is an opportune time to reflect on humanity and to work on developing a deeper understanding of the issues. Although we no longer reside in the Philippines, including many of us youth who were born here in Canada, as Filipinos we are still impacted by the struggles of those left behind because we see ourselves in them. Let us not be quick to judge and condemn.

Johsa Manzanilla is Amnesty International’s Country Coordinator for the Philippines and the Director of ANAK.

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