By Michael Angelo S. Murillo,

WHEN now President Rodrigo R. Duterte decided to run for president last year, his platform was hinged on a number of issues, foremost of which was tackling the illegal drugs problem. Half a year into his presidency, Mr. Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign is in full throttle through the umbrella initiative dubbed Oplan TokHang under which citizens who are supposedly involved in illegal drugs — whether as users or pushers — are encouraged to stop what they are doing and join the fight against illegal drugs.

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As 2016 came to a close, officials said the program made significant strides. According to police data, 1,049,302 individuals had “surrendered” under Oplan TokHang between July 1 and Dec. 22, 2016; 45,041 people were arrested; 2,295 drug suspects were killed during police operations; 69,647 drug offenders were jailed; and 54 were undergoing counseling with the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Over in Camarines Sur, British football coach and volunteer director of the Football Council of Naga (FCN) Chris Thomas, believes it is important to complement the anti-drug campaign with activities to rehabilitate and help people involved in drugs get back to society. To do this, FCN partnered with the Naga city government for its own anti-drugs program.

In the partnership, the FCN — which is under the city government’s Education, Sports and Scholarships Office (ESSO) — crafted a specially formulated football-based program as part of the “after-care” plan to rehabilitate and integrate former drug dependents.

“It’s vital that we support the government’s drive to bring back to the mainstream those individuals who have lost their bearings and have given in to the lure of drugs. It’s a very noble, feasible, and not at all impossible program. I have seen men and women successfully recover and become productive members of society again, through special football programs. I have conducted these special programs myself, and the transformative power of football allowed individuals to regain physical, mental, psychological and social skills; along with other rehab programs,” Mr. Thomas told BusinessWorld.

“It is a long, but necessary process, for total recovery of these returning individuals. Sports can heal, and we need to do this today, give this service to our countrymen,” Mr. Thomas added.

He went on to say that plans are afoot to bring in coaches from the United Kingdom under his “Football for Humanity” program, which was forged with UK-based Grwp Llandrillo Menai Colleges which promotes volunteer service and exchange programs. The visiting coaches will help conduct special sessions for recovering addicts, similar to programs which have had a history of good results in the UK.

Mr. Thomas cited the results of a questionnaire given to 353 people who were among the 560 substance-abusing participants in a program run by Street Football Wales: “Eighty-seven percent said their mental health had improved; 87% said their physical health had improved; 63% said their drug or alcohol intake had lessened; 77% said their relationships with support improved; 74% said their living conditions had improved; 91% said their confidence and self-esteem improved; 82% said their motivation to learn new skills or start working had increased; and 89% said their football skills had improved.”

The FCN volunteer director added, “You can therefore conclude that adding the sport dimension to the rehab program yields significant results, not only physically, but also psychologically. It also improved the participant’s social skills and this is very important for people with low self-esteem.”

And such a dimension is what the people at FCN wanted to put in when they presented the program to the Naga city government.

“The goal was to bring the entire body to wholeness again, using basic warm-up exercises, drills and games that actually end in fun and positive emotions for these returnees,” Mr. Thomas said, referring to the recovering addicts.

Under the city’s anti-drug program’s first wave of implementation, the Oplan TokHang surrenderees were grouped by barangays. FCN was assigned two barangays as pilot areas. The aim is for the football program to eventually be implemented in the entire city. Volunteer coaches conducted 30-minute routines at least once a week during the hour-long rehab sessions that were conducted twice a week in each barangay.

“There are many elements to the program, and we come into the ‘sports and physical fitness’ portion of the intervention,” Mr. Thomas said.

As per data from the Naga City Dangerous Drugs Board (NCDDB), at least 1,600 persons registered for the rehab effort during the first wave of its implementation.

While programs were already in place before Oplan TokHang was initiated, the NCDDB said efforts are being doubled to adhere to the thrust of the Duterte government.

“The city government is putting together an integrated program that is spiritual, psychological, and physical. They realize that this is going to need a long-term platform and the support of many sectors of society, including religious, academic and sports, and this is being formulated right now,” said Jose Importante, executive director of the NCDDB, when asked for a situationer on their efforts.

The FCN had signified its intention to be part of the program at no extra cost, something that was important, the drugs board and city government said.

Mr. Thomas said that they at FCN are very encouraged by the reception to it’s contribution in the city’s anti-drugs campaign, saying they are more determined to work for its success if continued to be tapped as a partner.

“Everyone is positive about the program, including the FCN Board and the coaches. This is really a great opportunity for us to make a positive change in individuals and in communities. We have this chance to prove that football, like other sports, has a therapeutic side to it. Sport is not for athletes only — it’s for everyone who desires a higher quality of life for himself and for his loved ones,” Mr. Thomas said.

“Hopefully, this system won’t be for Naga only; we hope the entire country can adopt it and we can really reintegrate and make ‘wounded’ citizens productive again. That brings the program to a higher plane. It’s not just to catch people and punish criminals. It’s to give people a second chance and a better life.”