The on-going war on drugs in the Philippines is a hot topic nowadays. Supporters of the country’s new President (Rodrigo Duterte) have hailed the energized efforts of the government to put a stop to this drug menace plaguing the country while detractors of the President have cried foul over the bloodbath that has resulted and purported disregard of due process in the President’s ways. While people seem to be united in wanting to stop illegal drug addiction and its proliferation, the division seems to lie in the means to achieve the end. Duterte detractors feel that the all-out war being waged is not only morally wrong but also unsustainable. Indeed, evidence has shown that the many years of war on drugs in the Philippines as well as in other countries have not achieved the success hoped for. Many even view it as a failure. In light of this, there have been many alternatives taken and considered, including the legalization of narcotics and/or decriminalization of narcotics possession and use in small amounts. Let us look at such alternatives and see if these will work for us.
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A Facebook friend of mine told me that the inelastic demand for illegal drugs has made the drug trade strong. He argues that:
“Making it illegal just drives it at obscene levels of revenue. Revenue that cartels will protect at all cost. Case in point, the Prohibition era giving us the mafia like Al Capone. This is why decriminalization and regulation appears to be a solution to this gordian knot of organized crime.”
First of all, I think he raises a valid point. We can certainly learn from history, particularly during the Prohibition era in the United States, about the futility of criminalizing an in-demand commodity such as alcohol. However, I would also argue that we may be comparing two different things here. The Prohibition era was about alcohol but our present case is narcotics like crystal meth (a.k.a. shabu). Crystal meth is a highly addictive and extremely harmful mind-altering drug when abused. Alcohol, although also potentially harmful when abused, has been integrated into people’s lives even before the Prohibition era. As Dr. Deni Carise, Chief Medical Officer of the Phoenix House has argued that drugs:
“…has never been integrated into the daily life of healthy humans in the way that alcohol has. Scientifically, too, alcohol and other intoxicants are just not the same. Unless you’re a recovering addict, a glass of wine per day is absolutely not going to hurt you, and we’ve even seen evidence of minor medical benefits from light drinking. The same cannot be said of illegal drugs—imagine having a little bit of heroin each night with your dinner!”
Another difference between alcohol and drugs is the consumption intent and intoxication for them. Political commentator Morton Kondracke points out that in America, of the 115 million people who consume alcohol, 85% rarely become intoxicated. With consumption of illegal drugs, intoxication is the whole idea!
Another rationale for the legalization of illegal drugs is the potential revenue it can bring to the government coffers. This seems like an attractive outcome. There certainly is a lot of money going to our treasury through “sin taxes” from products like alcohol and tobacco. Narcotics can certainly add to the pot instead of the pockets of organized crime figures. But if we go back to the lessons of the Prohibition era, Kondracke points out that:
“… prohibition is a useful historical parallel for measuring the costs of legalization. Almost certainly doctors are not going to want to write prescriptions for recreational use of harmful substances, so if drugs even are legalized they will be dispensed as alcohol now is—in government-regulated stores with restrictions on the age of buyers, warnings against abuse (and probably, with added restrictions on amounts, though this also will create a black market).”
Granting that in the Philippines, alcohol and tobacco can liberally be bought in every street corner store, imagine if this were the case for narcotics as well? Even if the government were to regulate the packaging and distribution of, say, crystal meth and limit the dosage per package to the maximum safe therapeutic level (e.g. safe therapeutic dosage of metamphetamine for narcolepsy treatment is 60mg per day maximum) and even if the dispensation of this drug can only be done by accredited pharmacies, what measures can we have to prevent this highly addictive drug from being abused? With such a tight restriction to obtain this drug, is it too farfetched to think that we would only create a black market for this? Wouldn’t organized crime still operate in the drug trade, albeit restrictedly, and profit from it?
I do not think legalization is the way to go.
Decriminalization using the Portuguese Model
I have heard of the claimed success of decriminalizing narcotics possession in Portugal. Please note that there is a difference between legalizing and decriminalizing here. In Portugal, use and possession of drugs for personal use is still illegal but the penalty is merely administrative rather than criminal. This means that instead of being charged for a crime, the offender (someone caught with less than a ten day supply of the drug) is asked to go to rehab or do community service instead of being jailed.
The Portuguese model seems very attractive. Not only has it received so many praises worldwide, their approach sounds very kind indeed. But one of the problems that I see in the arguments of the proponents of the Portuguese model is that these folks may be comparing apples and oranges. Although both countries are socially conservative (predominantly Catholic population), there are also lots of differences that may affect how effective the model is if it were to be applied in the Philippines.
For instance, Portugal only has roughly 10% of the Philippines’ population and a glaring difference in average income per person (Portugal has $22,900 GDP vs $4,700 GDP). The Portuguese model, from what I understand, looks at drug addiction as a health issue and not a criminal one. Thus, instead of incarceration, drug addicts are treated courtesy of the Portuguese government free of charge. Here is one question, though: With the Philippines having such a low tax base ($4,700 GDP), can we really expect the Philippine government to be able to sustain the Portuguese model’s infrastructure to support such a measure?
The Portuguese model has an expansive drug treatment. According to Wikipedia:
“Healthcare for drug users in Portugal is organised mainly through the public network services of treatment for illicit substance dependence, under the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, and the Ministry of Health. In addition to public services, certification and protocols between NGOs and other public or private treatment services ensure a wide access to quality-controlled services encompassing several treatment modalities. The public services provided are free of charge and accessible to all drug users who seek treatment.
There are 73 specialised treatment facilities (public and certified private therapeutic communities), 14 detoxification units, 70 public outpatient facilities and 13 accredited day centres. Portugal is divided into 18 districts. There is full coverage of drug outpatient treatment across all but four districts (districts not covered are located in the north of the country: Viana do Castelo, Bragança, Viseu and Guarda).”
In addition, the Portuguese model also includes what is called a “Substitution Treatment”. The idea behind this approach is that a substitute substance is given to the drug addicts until they get fully treated. So instead of heroin, drug addicts are given methadone or buprenorphine.
Now if we are going to treat drug addiction as a disease and take it as a health issue, does this mean that the taxpayers would need to shoulder the cost of building the infrastructure needed for the program and its maintenance, as well as medication to support the substitution treatment? In 2012 alone, the Dangerous Drugs Board already estimated that 1.7 million Filipinos are hooked on drugs (with Shabu having the highest abuse rate). I wonder how much this will affect the limited budget we have to allocate for our other immediate needs such as education, public works, transportation, as well as infrastructure development and maintenance? So where are we going to get the money for the application of the Portuguese model in the Philippines? If we are to allocate a huge chunk of our budget for this, which of the programs we are currently supporting are we willing to make sacrifices on? Will it be education? Public works and highways? Energy?
The Portuguese model, with all its praises and purported glory, also has its downside. The claim that decriminalization has decreased narcotics consumption is very debatable. Boston Globe reporter Keith O’Brien notes:
“But the numbers aren’t all positive. According to the latest report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the number of Portuguese aged 15 to 64 who have ever tried illegal drugs has climbed from 7.8 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2007. The percentage of people who have tried cannabis, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, ecstasy, and LSD all increased in that time frame. Cannabis use, according to the drug report, has gone up from 7.6 to 11.7 percent. Heroin use jumped from 0.7 to 1.1 percent, and cocaine use nearly doubled — from 0.9 to 1.9 percent.”
In addition, the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) reported that among school children:
“…survey results for 2011 showed that lifetime prevalence of cannabis use was 16 % (13 % in 2007; 15 % in 2003; 8 % in 1999). Lifetime prevalence for inhalants was 6 % (4 % in 2007; 8 % in 2003; 3 % in 1999), and for all other substances lifetime prevalence was reported at 3 %. The results indicated 16 % for last year prevalence of cannabis use (10 % in 2007; 13 % in 2003; 9 % in 1999), and 9 % for last month prevalence (6 % in 2007; 8 % in 2003; 5 % in 1999).”
So as we can see, despite all the praises we have been hearing (and the glorification from various Facebook memes) about the Portuguese model, school children may be very vulnerable to drug use and abuse as seen from empirical data showing an increase in illicit substances among students in Portugal. Although we may hope to see a decrease in dead bodies in our TV screens when watching TV Patrol by applying the Portuguese model, we may end up risking more of our young to into trying drugs! Stanford Psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys says of the result that:
“What it says to me is that when you decriminalize, use goes up — potentially dramatically, … You can see a doubling of cocaine use, a doubling of heroin use. And because drug use carries some risk — no one disputes that — it becomes inevitable that as use goes up, more people will get hurt.”
No Silver Bullet
This article is not meant to suggest that we ought to just gun down all drug addicts and drug dealers at a drop of a pen. What I am saying is that we should take a pause for a moment and re-think what we say whenever we jump into embracing one magic model or formula to approach a problem like the drug menace. Like many problems in life, there is no one silver bullet that can wipe them all out. Singapore seems to have figured this out when it adopted a combination of approaches. It employs “a comprehensive national strategy to combat the scourge of drugs, comprising a high-profile public education campaign, treatment and rehabilitation of drug offenders, as well as strict laws and stiff penalties against those involved in the drug trade.” So basically it pursues prevention through educational campaign and rehabilitation programs while still applying strict punitive measures (including the death penalty) to drug traffickers and unmanageable drug addicts. Michael Teo, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the Court claims that:
“Public education against drug abuse starts in schools. For abusers, our approach is to try hard to wean them off drugs and deter them from relapsing. They are given two chances in a drug rehabilitation centre. If they go through counselling, kick their drug habit and return to society with useful skills, they will not have any criminal record. Those who are still addicted go to prison, where they are put on general rehabilitation programmes to help them reintegrate into the community.
Strong community support against drug abuse has been critical to our fight against drugs. Singapore society resolutely rejects drug abuse. Several voluntary welfare organisations run halfway houses to help recovering addicts adjust back into society. Many employers also come forward to offer reformed drug addicts employment opportunities.
Drug traffickers are a major part of the problem on the supply side. They make drugs available in our communities and profit from the human misery they help create. This is why tough laws and penalties are needed, including capital punishment for trafficking in significant amounts of the most harmful drugs. This sends a strong deterrent signal to would-be traffickers. But unfortunately, attracted by the lucrative payoffs, some still traffic in drugs knowing full well the penalty if they get caught.
With all these efforts, Singapore has one of the lowest prevalence of drug abuse worldwide, even though it has not been entirely eliminated. Over two decades, the number of drug abusers arrested each year has declined by two-thirds, from over 6,000 in the early 1990s to about 2,000 last year. Fewer than two in 10 abusers released from prison or drug rehabilitation centres relapse within two years. We do not have traffickers pushing drugs openly in the streets, nor do we need to run needle exchange centres. Because of our strict laws, Singapore does not have to contend with major drug syndicates linked to organised crime, unlike some other countries.”
On the right track
President Duterte may very well be on the right track with his approach in tackling the drug menace in the Philippines. While he has been vicious and relentless in the war on drugs he is waging, he has publicly denounced extrajudicial killings. In addition to cutting the “apparatus” that is being used by the (foreign and big time) sources of illegal drugs in the narcotics proliferation in the country, his plan includes establishment of bigger rehabilitation centers for drug dependents as well as putting recalcitrant drug addicts in military or “barracks” type camps. He said:
“We cannot build a nation by killing people over the bodies of your fellow citizens but I’ll have to control. So ‘yung sira na, you have to check with them if they are talagang ma-resuscitate pa, ika nga. Lagay na lang natin sila diyan … Yung recalcitrants or those guys na ayaw talagang magpakulong or are no longer of service to humanity because they are — padala na lang natin doon.”
(English trans.: “We cannot build a nation by killing people over the bodies of your fellow citizens but I’ll have to control. Those who are already severely damaged, you have to check with them if they are still able to be resuscitated, so to speak. Let’s just put them there … The recalcitrants or those guys who refuse to be taken in or are no longer of service to humanity because they are — let’s just send all of them there”.
Duterte defends compulsory confinement of drug addicts by comparing it with compulsory confinement of insane people. He said:
“We don’t need any legal basis. The legal basis is we take him in for his own protection. That’s why we are allowed to arrest insane people for compulsory confinement. Why? It is to protect him from harm and to protect the public.”
Proponents of western (liberal) style approach like the Portuguese model and idealistic adherence to liberal democracy may very well be missing a very important point. As Michael Teo has pointed out:
“Liberal democracy works for the west – but not in south-east Asia, we have different views.
Every society has to strike its own balance between individual liberties and the common good. Some in the west like John Kampfner feel a calling to go forth and convert the heathen to western liberal democracy. But the true test is what works in the real world, with real societies. To worship a western model as the only way, and dismiss all other solutions as authoritarian or undemocratic, is surely the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.”
Amen to that, indeed.
(Photo from http://z6.invisionfree.com/flipzi/ar/t646.htm)
Calling a spade, a spade…