IN CONTRAST to President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s hardline stance on drugs, government agencies called for a holistic approach to rehabilitating drug personalities who have surrendered.

“The government approach is transitioning to a more balanced approach to substance use,” Dangerous Drugs Board  (DDB) Undersecretary Benjamin P. Reyes said at the first National Substance Use Science Policy and Information Forum held this June. “We already have policies in place to have this implemented in all local government units (LGUs) in the country.”

Community-based rehabilitation programs (CBRPs) focus on “healing of the body, mind, and soul through counseling and other therapeutic sessions.” Based on data from the Department of Local and Interior Government, 723 cities and municipalities already implement CBRPs. After completing rehabilitation, patients are reintegrated into their communities through an aftercare program conducted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Other government initiatives include the development of detoxification package under the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, as well as inpatient and outpatient packages for substance users. A substance abuse helpline has been available since June 2020 to provide assistance to callers with substance use disorders.

“But government alone can’t implement such a big intervention program. We call on everyone to remain vigilant and help government efforts address this issue,” said Mr. Reyes, who added that DDB has asked several non-government organizations, as well as the Rotary Public, for assistance.

The drug problem is not just a drug supply, law enforcement, or public health problem, said Olivier Lermet, senior policy advisor of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the Philippines.

“This global drug problem is a VUCA problem: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous,” he said. “If it stops somewhere, it reappears elsewhere. There is not one corner of the world unaffected by illegal drugs. It is transnational,” he said.

Acknowledging that drug dependence is a complex, multifactorial health disorder characterized by a chronic and relapsing nature is part of the solution added Mr. Lermet.

The senior policy advisor also recognized positive developments in the Philippine response, including the agreement between the Department of Health (DoH) and World Health Organization on protocols of treatment; the drug demand reduction section in the Philippine anti-illegal drugs strategy, which aligns with recommendations from the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem; and the expansion of treatment for people who use drugs, especially in community-based interventions.

In the Philippines, there are 4,840 beds in 64 drug rehabilitation centers and 16,751 individuals with severe substance use disorders, according to Dr. Jose Bienvenido M. Leabres, program manager of the Dangerous Drugs Abuse and Treatment Program of the DoH.

“We need — this 2021 — an additional 11,911 beds. Once we have the DoH-accredited facilities, we will have added an additional 1,282 beds, decreasing our gap to 10,629,” he said.

A UNODC report titled  Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: latest developments and challenges 2021” revealed that methamphetamine seizures increased substantially despite the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Organized crime groups have been able to continue the expansion of the regional synthetic drug trade — in particular in the upper Mekong and Shan State of Myanmar — by maintaining a steady supply of chemicals into production areas despite border restrictions that have impacted legitimate cross border trade,” said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “While the pandemic has caused the global economy to slow down, criminal syndicates that dominate the region have quickly adapted and capitalized.”

Mr. Lermet said it’s difficult for nations to keep pace and be on top of this evolving drug market. “I call it a market because that’s an important aspect of it. It’s a $60 billion market in our region.”

While seizures of crystal methamphetamine in the Philippines in 2020 have increased compared to 2019, the UNODC report also pointed out that admissions for methamphetamine use in the country more than halved. This is partly due to the COVID-19-related lockdown restrictions, the suspension of admission during the height of the pandemic, and a shift in government priorities from rehabilitation to COVID-19 response.

The anti-narcotics campaign, which topped Mr. Duterte’s agenda pre-pandemic, has seized a total of P40.39 billion worth of illegal drugs from the start of the drug war on July 2016, to November 2019, according to government data. More than 150,000 anti-drug operations, conducted since Mr. Duterte assumed office until November 2019, have also led to the arrest of 220,728 drug personalities and the deaths of 5,552 drug suspects.

The Duterte administration rejected the recommendation by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor to formally open a probe into the alleged crimes against humanity committed in Mr. Duterte’s war against drugs, saying the development is “legally erroneous and politically motivated.” — Patricia B. Mirasol