By Rodan Mecano, Associate Director for the Universal Healthcare Lab, Civika, Philippines

Since the declaration of the War on Drugs by President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has faced increasing international scrutiny. A growing death toll, estimated to be between 3,000 and 12,000 people, has resulted from violence related to the anti-drug efforts. Individuals began to turn themselves into the authorities in order to escape the possibility of death. The national government, overwhelmed by the sheer number of “drug surrenderees”, has scrambled to build upon their initial fragmented response. Community-based drug rehabilitation programs implemented by local government units, NGOs, and churches have begun to address gaps in care. Overcrowded jails and an inundated criminal justice system point to the need to recalibrate policies, anchoring the response to illegal drugs in a health-centered, and not criminal-centered, approach.

The IDPC, PBN4U, and BABSEACLE organised a regional training workshop in Malaysia in September, inviting 31 delegates from across the ASEAN region. It aimed to provide an introduction to the concepts of harm reduction and access to justice for people who use drugs. From the perspective of a Philippine delegate, the workshop proceedings addressed two gaps that are found in the country’s community-based drug rehabilitation movement – education and a unified understanding.

A health-centred approach acknowledges that people who experience difficulties related to their drug use should be able to access support and care services. But it also allows to understand how not every person using drugs will need help. When this point is delivered by skilled facilitators with a history of drug use, it is particularly powerful. Harm reduction concepts are not widely popular in the Philippines and this is reflected by current policies. The Philippines is a country where the stigmatisation of persons using drugs is widespread. In countries where community-based initiatives are just emerging, educating the public is imperative for the creation of policies that support harm reduction.

Through collaboration and discussion, delegates gained a broader awareness of the current situation of the drug issue at both the local and international level. While the Philippines has dominated the international headlines, it is not the only country in the ASEAN region that is currently faced with similar challenges. In an era of globalisation, we can draw ideas from the lessons learned in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Similarly, discussions on the local context between the Philippine delegates highlighted the need for information sharing. With individuals from a myriad of organizations and backgrounds, not everyone had access to the same information on the current status of the anti-drug campaign in the Philippines. In addition, varying levels of expertise on the concepts of harm reduction made the workshop discussion engaging and informative. As a platform for candid discussion, the workshop promoted an atmosphere where delegates could attempt to reach a mutual understanding.

The Philippines moves towards a critical pivot point as recognition of community-based initiatives continues to grow. The creation of policies that support a continuum of treatment and care for people who use drugs is the next step. In that sense, the Introduction to Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Advocacy & Access to Justice for People Who Use Drugs regional training workshop came at the perfect time.