In September last year, President Duterte sent PNP chief Director General Ronald de la Rosa to Colombia to see “how they won the war on drugs.” Apparently, De la Rosa wasn’t listening or simply ignored what the Colombian officials said because months after the trip, the deaths in the administration’s war on drugs continue to mount.
In April 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the United Nations that there should be a “more effective, lasting and human solution” to the problem that would address the issue at the root causes, and expand the fight beyond enforcement. Colombia had abandoned a deadly drug war initiated by then President Cesar Gaviria in the early 1990s that resulted, according to Gaviria himself, in the killing of tens of thousands of drug users and pushers.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Gaviria, who is now part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said he “learned the hard way” that using force in fighting the war on drugs does not work.
“Illegal drugs are a matter of national security, but the war against them cannot be won by armed forces and law-enforcement agencies alone,” he said, adding that instead of containing Colombia’s drug problem, it only worsened and created new problems.
«The war on drugs is essentially a war on people,» he said, adding that there needs to be «an honest conversation,» to get the drug menace under control. Gaviria wrote that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should learn from Colombia’s experience that a drug war solely reliant on police and military might is “unwinnable.”
But Duterte wouldn’t listen. Instead, the tough-talking President called the former Colombian president an “idiot” for “lecturing” him on the war on drugs. Duterte said that the situations in Colombia and the Philippines are different because of the kind of illegal drugs trafficked in those countries, arguing that in the South American nation, cocaine was the most prevalently used, while in the Philippines, it is “shabu” which, he said, uses a chemical used in manufacturing batteries.
“The fact alone that it is mixed using battery water will give you an indication of what’s going to happen inside your brain,” Duterte said. Whether there is truth to what he had said has never been discussed.
At a policy forum on drugs held recently at the University of the Philippines, five international experts in drug policy spoke against the use of force and suggested that there are better ways than waging war against the users.
Agnes Callamard, United Nations special rapporteur who was the keynote speaker, said world leaders have already recognized that the war on drugs “does not work,” and that many harms associated with narcotics were not caused by it but by “badly thought-out policies.”
She said ill-conceived policies not only fail to address drug abuse and trafficking but also “foster a regime of impunity infecting the whole justice sector and reaching into whole societies, invigorating the rule of violence rather than law.” She is the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.
Callamard added that instead of a violent response to illegal drugs, heads of state are calling for a balanced, multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach that puts emphasis on health, rights and justice.
Carl Hart, neuro-psycho-pharmacologist from the Columbia University, said wars against illegal drugs are actually campaigns against the poor and the undesired in society.
“All you need to do is to look at who is being arrested, who is being killed and what you will find is that it is the undesired people in your society, the poor people in your society. So in effect, it becomes a war on those undesirable.”
Pascal Tanguay, who spoke on the experience of Thailand in its war on drugs, said the International Drug Policy Consortium has come up with different alternatives that can be implemented to address drug proliferation, including diversion, scaling of drug reduction, and evidence-based drug dependence treatment. “Essentially none of these are being implemented in the Philippines,” he said.
John Collins, director of the International Drug Policy Program of the London School of Economics, also noted that the drug prevalence in the Philippines is lower than the global average, contradicting Duterte’s claim that the country has become a narco-state.
He said that the Philippine government is acting on the wrong perception that it has reached a crisis point and there has to be severe action. Based on data, the Philippines is probably below average in terms of consumption rate on the international scale, Collins said.
The fifth speaker, Philippine Dangerous Drugs Board chairman Benjamin Reyes, said the agency is set to submit to Malacañang a revised version of the Philippine Anti-Illegal Drug Strategy. The new strategy, he said, would be aligned with the priorities of the administration.
But it seems all the observations by experts fell again on deaf ears. Presidential chief legal adviser Salvador Panelo merely said the remarks of Callamard were based on hearsay, instead of saying that the government would look into their suggestions and see if they could be incorporated into the government efforts against illegal drugs.
Duterte should stop being too sensitive to criticisms, especially by experts who have been studying the problem for many years now. It’s time he abandons the deadly war on drugs and changes his strategy. Then he can start focusing on battling poverty, which after all is the root cause of the drug and other problems in the country.