By Dr. John Collins

Why the Philippines’ new war on drug users will fail

Posted on August 02, 2016

RIGHT NOW, just as much of the world moves away from the “war on drugs,” the Philippines has launched headlong into a new and bloody pursuit. President Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed the police and encouraged vigilantism to “kill” drug users, dealers and others falling afoul of his “war” on crime. Hundreds have been killed. Tens of thousands of consumers have surrendered to police despite a complete absence of social or “treatment” infrastructure to absorb them.

Beneath the storm of violence and death lies an ugly historical rhythm -- an ever-present societal tendency towards cleansing unwanted groups, and political leaders enabling and fuelling it. Regardless of the motives, however, lies another historical rhythm, the failures of the so-called “war on drugs.” History and economics from around the globe highlight a policy certainty: the Philippines’ new “war” will fail and society will emerge worse off from it.

The global “war on drugs,” now so widely discredited, had some of its origins in US colonialism in the Philippines. At the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898 the US gained control of the islands. Having, since the late 19th century, adopted a moralistic and reactionary view to non-medical opium consumption, the new US administration faced a conundrum -- what to do with the legalized sale of smoking opium there? Some argued that swift prohibitions would spark a large illicit market and undermine governance. Others argued that the US had a moral obligation to end the practice and forcibly detox all existing consumers. The latter position won out. The US instituted a policy of strict prohibition, except for “medical and scientific” use.

The nascent US empire, now looking beyond the shores of the Americas, soon saw the existence of legalized opium consumption in Europe’s Asian colonies as both a moral repugnance and a threat to prohibition in the Philippines. Adopting a “supply-centric” view the US argued that all nations needed to suppress the trade in order for one nation to do so. It held the Philippines up as a poster child and began global efforts to international its prohibitionist approach.

Other factors underpinned the US strategy. China, in the midst of imperial collapse of the Qing dynasty, blamed opium for much of its internal malaise. The US, at the same time as cracking down on Chinese immigration, saw a way to ingratiate itself to the Chinese state and lessen European influence there. Both nations teamed up to internationalize restrictions on the global opium trade and the Global Opium Commission met in Shanghai in 1909. There began what historian William McAllister calls “a limited enterprise” of global drug control. International conventions, albeit complex and often Swiss cheese-like, were signed over the coming decades. Meanwhile, bilateral diplomatic pressures from the US resulted in the final globalization of the “war on drugs” in the 1970s.

The strategy persisted through the 2000s until states in Latin America, which had paid such a heavy burden for the war, and states within the United States, began to reject the strategy. Europe, which had generally never really subscribed to the vision of the “war on drugs,” was happy to watch it unravel under its own weight. Now, as the UN passes beyond the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 2016, we at LSE IDEAS refer to the emergence of a “postwar on drugs era.” This era is one characterized by the emergence of a wave of more liberal policies throughout the Americas and Europe -- most notably cannabis legalization, but also a tidal shift towards public health approaches and an attempt to drive back from the disaster of mass incarceration in the US.

Others, under this era of “policy pluralism,” seem certain to maintain a “war” on users. Russia rejects anything resembling science or public health and has developed a self-inflicted HIV and Hepatitis epidemic as a result. Many Southeast Asian nations also maintain the war’s efficacy. Some are defecting, however, most notably Thailand, experiencing the pointless ravages of mass incarceration, is looking to decriminalize consumers in a smarter new approach. This highlights the central hope for a new era based on policy pluralism and experimentation: that evidence and rationality will win out over fear and xenophobia. Just as Europe and the US witnesses demagogues pushing for closed borders and a fear of the “other,” so too Asia is witnessing the easy vilification of an internal “other” -- the drug user.

The Philippines will fail in its endeavor for many reasons which are well researched and understood. First, one cannot solve a public health issue through repression and criminalization. It forces consumers into dangerous situations and increases risky practices. Expect higher levels of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other costly and avoidable illness in the aftermath of this war. When forced to hide their usage practices people do irrational things, such as sharing syringes and consuming in dangerous environments.

Second, decades of experience of managing illegal drug markets around the world highlights one simple fact, they cannot be eradicated through repression. They can be displaced. They can be made more or less violent and corrupting. But they cannot be eradicated. Attempts to destroy them through bloodletting, as the recent Mexican case has highlighted, merely causes power vacuums, temporary changes in supply practices, but ultimately a return to market normalcy once the bloodletting ends. In other words, war with the economics of the drugs market is futile. Once a market is established, as it clearly is in the Philippines, demand creates supply.

The most that enforcement can do is tinker at the margins.

In the meantime the country will witness a complete erosion of the basic necessities of a functioning polity and economy -- stability, rule of law, and a minimization of corruption. While each of these may have been in short supply prior to this new war, the latter will certainly exacerbate rather than improve existing problems. Countries emerging from internal conflict take decades to heal. The notion that creating an artificial one will in some way heal internal divisions and problems is a fallacy.

We know from a century of experience what doesn’t work in drug policy. A “war on drugs” is a globally discredited strategy. Although we have strong evidence around what works on the demand side -- public health, harm reduction, and access to treatment services -- we are less certain about proactive strategies for managing the supply side under prohibition. We will surely learn much from experiments with marijuana legalization and new sustainable development oriented approaches to production and transit. However, what we can say with broad certainty from lessons from every corner of the globe is that the Philippines new war will not work and will prove destructive to the legal, political, and socioeconomic fabric of their nation. It should stop.

Dr. John Collins is the Executive Director, LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project of The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).