DRUG use and abuse date back to antiquity. Strands of hair from mummies have revealed the intake of drugs millennia ago by ancient Egyptians. Sumerians had opium around 3500 BCE, early Chinese consumed marijuana about 3000 BCE, and South American Incas used the hallucinogen vilca from 2100 BCE.
Greek Olympians, like some contemporary athletes, and Roman gladiators used drugs to enhance performance. Both Allies and Axis soldiers during World War 2 ingested methamphetamine derivatives to sustain their fighting spirit, and Japanese Kamikaze pilots on suicide missions took high doses of the drug pervitin.
The varieties and nomenclatures of drugs have changed but human desire for stimulants and hallucinogens remains universal.
Today, the illicit drug trade and substance abuse are critical global problems. The perils of drug addiction are devastating. It is for good reason that governments worldwide have undertaken initiatives and campaigns to control, curb, and criminalize contraband drugs and addiction.
Consequently, the extermination of the drug menace is the centerpiece program of President Rodrigo Duterte which he repeatedly proclaimed in his campaign rhetoric, post-election pronouncements, and State of the Nation Addresses (SONA).
Before the official campaign period started, Duterte had told Filipinos to “put up several funeral parlors” because if he won, there would be a boom in the funerary business as he would kill those involved in the illegal drugs trade. On the campaign trail, Duterte reiterated his pledge to eradicate illegal drugs “within three to six months”. He vowed: “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you.” He added: “I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
But due to errant policies and brutal enforcement, what was exterminated were impoverished suspected drug peddlers and users, not the drug menace, not the well-entrenched mighty drug lords, not the illegal inflow of narcotics, and not the clandestine manufacture of prohibited drugs, particularly shabu (methamphetamine) which is the drug of choice in the Philippines.
Duterte’s centerpiece program was doomed to scatter as tattered pieces. The implementers, led by the President himself, failed and refused to understand that the drug menace is rooted in abject poverty and human frailty, and is primarily a health concern, more than a peace and order problem. Consequently, the right solutions were not pursued. The preferred remedy was worse than the malady.
Duterte himself favored killing drug suspects as the principal solution. After his inauguration, he virtually instructed police officers to kill suspects in cold blood: “Do your duty and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons … I will protect you.” If a suspect violently resists arrest, he advised: “shoot him dead.” During his first SONA he proclaimed that “we will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher has surrendered or put behind bars or below the ground.”
When the bodies began to pile up and he was criticized for violating human rights, he declared that drug addicts were not human and beyond rehabilitation. After a particularly bloody day when 32 drug suspects were killed, he lauded the police and said: “That’s good! If we kill another 32 everyday then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
Duterte was the first to admit that his war against drugs is a failure. Less than a month after he reiterated in his second SONA his relentless drug campaign “no matter how long it takes”, he admitted that “I promised that I will do away with shabu. Now I know this can’t be fulfilled, this will not end.”
Despite a second admission by Duterte in August 2018 that “drugs will not end at the end of my term. It might just be worsened”, the body count of victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) grew to horrifying numbers. In April 2019, Duterte again conceded that the drug problem was “swallowing” the country and confessed: “drugs, I cannot control, even if I ordered the deaths of these idiots.”
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra admitted the horrific Duterte administration’s drug war and its failure to control the drug menace in his 2021 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). He virtually conceded that the “nanlaban” alibi is a malevolent cover-up of the gruesome execution of drug suspects because the police failed to follow protocols and rules.
Police authorities, after worldwide condemnation of Duterte’s deadly drug war, reduced to 6,011 the official casualty count between July 2016 to Dec. 2020 from their initial boast of 16,344 drug deaths barely six months into the Duterte administration. However, human rights groups claim to have recorded about 30,000 EJKs.
Rehabilitation not execution, poverty mitigation not summary liquidation, are the proper solutions to the drug menace. State-sponsored violence will not curb the drug problem. Publicly ridiculing addicts and labelling them “not human” only brutalize and degrade them, and make it easier for the police to pull the trigger.
The Duterte administration should have learned from the total failure of the bloody drug campaigns in Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Thailand. The ammunition we need in the war against drugs are comprehensive education programs on prevention of drug abuse; livelihood opportunities and appropriate skills training for high-risk sectors; well-funded health interventions; and a human rights-based approach to treatment and rehabilitation to reintegrate former drug dependents into society.
The centerpiece program on solving the drug menace flounders because Duterte’s brutal implementation sacrifices the rule of law and human rights to extrajudicial killings, and prioritizes police punitive action to economic and health solutions. The failure is not only dreadfully dismal, but also culpably criminal. It cannot survive the voters’ wrath in the 2022 elections.