My thoughts on the war on drugs: Stop the killings, decriminalize drug use.

Yellow Pad
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III

Posted on July 25, 2016

I am afraid that amid our indignation over the spate of killings, we have not clearly articulated the effective way to stop the killings.

Concerned organizations and individuals demand an investigation and a stop to the killings. But beyond the condemnation, how do we address the drug problem?

The trafficking of illicit drugs is inherently violent. Respecting human rights is absolutely necessary. But it is naïve to think that by itself, it will solve the violence and will end the other nefarious activities attached to the drug trade.

Worse, some opinion makers raise other issues, which I think only further confuse or unnecessarily alarm the public.

This weekend, an old friend, Jun Dalandan, sent some classmates an e-mail about an article posted on the blog site of Raissa Robles. The article is titled: “The war against illegal drugs: Real or propaganda?” The author is someone named Yvonne, a nom de plume.

In Ms. Robles’s introduction, she said: “The questions that Yvonne poses are the same questions I have been raring to ask, in the absence of a press conference with President Rodrigo Duterte.”

The article’s concluding statement is a good summary of the whole piece: “But let us all be vigilant that this ‘war’ is for real and not a pretext to impose a police state reminiscent of the martial law era during the Marcos dictatorship.”

Here, the issue is no longer about the war on drugs but about the threat of a police state.

I responded to the e-mail of Jun. I cut and paste below my response to Jun and classmate, but slightly revised to suit a column.
Dear Jun, dear all,

It is sad that Yvonne and for that matter Raissa miss the central issue regarding the drug war. They fear the police state; they fear dictatorship; they fear martial law. What I see is they fear ghosts.

Why will Duterte impose something that is reminiscent of the martial law era?

To win the war against drugs? But what Duterte is doing now has instilled fear among the drug users and peddlers. No need for a police state or martial law.

Martial law or police state for what, then? To defeat the enemies of the state? But Duterte has shown credible commitment to forge peace with the Communist Party of the Philippines, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with the Moro National Liberation Front, and even with the Abu Sayyaf. In other words, he intends to end the war not truly military means but through negotiations. And his tactics are paying off.

To defeat the political opposition? Again, he can do it without need for martial law or a police state. If an Aquino can jail Corona, Enrile, and Gloria Arroyo by hook or by crook but within the existing rules, why can’t an iron-fisted Duterte do that in the existing system?

Besides the objective conditions will make it improbable for Duterte to enforce a police state or martial law. Do we think the Supreme Court, Congress, especially the Senate (led by liberal democratic politicians like Koko Pimentel, Frank Drilon, et al.), and a military that through the years has shown professionalism will allow Duterte to ride roughshod over our Constitution?

Being alarmist is akin to the boy crying wolf.

I am all for the investigation and accountability of human rights violations that perceptively have intensified amid the war on drugs. Yet it is also true that the problem has existed even before the presidency of Duterte. But because of his provocative words and loud mouth, killings have defined the first few days of his presidency.

In this regard, allow me to quote Anne Sylvie Laurent, a French Swiss and my sister’s friend, who immersed herself for seven years in urban poor communities in Pandacan, North Cemetery, and Quirino Avenue (where families live under the bridge). She was then a full-time volunteer of ATD, an international organization with headquarters in Paris, which works for poverty eradication. Anne said:

“In the Philippines, are there really more extra-judicial killings now (already) than before or is it that media and people talk more about it? It’s good to show what is happening, to express indignity, it’s essential, but the causes to look at are certainly way deeper than the present administration.”

In reaction to a news item on the killing of eight suspects in a drug bust, she wrote: “One of them we knew. But again I say that this is not new to this administration. It was happening already way before. Pakikiramay sa mga pamilya at mga kaibigan nila.”

But hold on, my main message is not to dispel fears of martial law. What I want to emphasize is that it’s the responsibility of opinion makers to pinpoint the central problem and offer a most humane and practical solution.

Yvonne is apparently ignorant of drug use. For example, she doubts the authenticity of the thousands who have surrendered: “Thousands surrendered, really?”

Yvonne gives a profile of the drug user: “typically incoherent or unresponsive, depressed, unkempt, disorganized, prone to violence, eyes dilated” That ain’t Mark nor anyone of us.

The news stories report that scores of thousands have surrendered. This cannot be stage-managed; this cannot be a conspiracy. And I have heard real stories from friends that the places they live in are heavily populated with drug users -- it’s not rare that the majority of residents in some dense barangays are drug users!

But what does this suggest? One can interpret it the way Duterte and the media interpret it: We are in deep shit; there is a deep crisis because of drugs.

But another way to look at it is that almost everybody uses drugs. And hence it’s not abnormal, but normal!

But not all users are drug addicts... in the same way that not all Jollibee customers over-consume Jollibee.

The utility of drugs for each individual varies. Some take the substance for recreation; others use it for medical treatment; others need it to keep them awake for their long hours of work or study. Only a wee minority fits the caricature of being “incoherent or unresponsive, depressed, unkempt, disorganized, prone to violence, eyes dilated”

In this case, if we accept that drug use is actually normal and has different utilities, we can consider drugs as an economic good. As goods, they are similar to tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco is worse than marijuana; tobacco consumption is immediately harmful.

Like any other economic good, drugs should be allowed in the marketplace. But like tobacco or alcohol, regulate it heavily (well, even a normal good like food needs regulation). The design of regulation will depend on the type and function of the drug. Drug products have to be differentiated. Regulation is customized, depending on the differentiation of products. Marijuana for example, can be offered, in specialized regulated cafes, the way it is done in Amsterdam. Other drugs can be made available in dispensaries. The most harmful of the drugs, on the other hand, will be isolated and prohibited.

In short, total prohibition is not the answer. Decriminalize if not legalize drug use. Look at the issue from a health and welfare perspective, not from the lens of criminality Fight addiction and abuse through benign means like harm reduction.

This approach will also stem the violence and the human rights violations.

I call this approach the second best, for there really is no first best. But it will be good enough to prevent society from being ripped apart by the war on drugs.

This must be our central message to Duterte, our alternative to the war on drugs that has spawned an endless cycle of violence.

But will Duterte listen? Let me be flippant but still serious in responding to this question.

This might be the rare occasion where his friend, a defeated candidate, can help him and society.

That friend should be supportive of our call -- decriminalize drug use!

And Duterte, being his friend, will listen to him and might give in to his reasonable request to decriminalize drug use.

And this will be the opportunity for his friend’s redemption. After all, it is said, during our high school days, he was the main supplier in the other school.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.