Last week, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, pledged to declare drug-related problems as a national security threat and to allocate two divisions of the Philippine Army and 3,000 policemen to fight it. It is highly questionable whether this is an effective response. Despite already significant investment of state resources in law enforcement for police to conduct raids, arrests and seizures to tackle drugs, a violent criminal market continues to grow in the Philippines.
It seems that harsh penalties are not a deterrent, as despite having some of the harshest penalties for drug offenses in Asia, more and more people are arrested for drug use and possession every year in the Philippines. These tough sanctions are also unjustly disproportionate. Possession of drugs alone can lead to a sentence of life imprisonment, while the maximum sentence for homicide is 17 years imprisonment. These measures have led to the highest prison overcrowding rates (over 700 percent in some regions) in Southeast Asia. Over half of those in prison are held for drug-related crimes, mostly low-level offenses. It is often those who are already poor and vulnerable that suffer most from these punitive policies. For example, while women are a minority in the prison population, one out of every two women is incarcerated because of a drug-related crime.
The unbalanced investment in heavily punitive measures has diverted attention and resources away from ensuring access to evidence-based drug treatment and harm reduction services, such as the provision of needle and syringe programs to prevent the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs. This lack of investment in health services means that those who are looking for help with problems relating to their drug use cannot get it. The Philippines now has a health crisis on its hands, with the world’s second highest rate of HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs.
In other parts of the world, governments are turning away from the use of harsh punishment to manage drug-related problems. After a century of prohibitionist drug policies, with vast resources poured into law and military enforcement and increasingly severe punishments imposed for drug use and supply, the world is very far from achieving the “drug-free world” envisaged by the last UN General Assembly Special Session (Ungass) on the world drug problem in 1998. The reality is that even in countries that have meted out the most excessive brutality in an attempt to eliminate drugs—from Thailand’s 2003 “war on drugs” (which resulted in 2,800 people dead from extrajudicial killings in the first three months) to Mexico’s militarization of its drug war in 2006 (which provoked outbreaks of violence with drug cartels leading to over 164,000 homicide victims between 2007 and 2014)—no claim of success in even suppressing drug markets, least of all eliminating them, can be made. Year after year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports expanding and diversifying drug markets, especially for methamphetamine in Southeast and East Asia.
It is the devastating consequences of prohibitionist and punitive drug policies that motivated the heads of state of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia to call for the first Ungass on the world drug problem in almost two decades, which started in New York April 19 and will end today. The Ungass was envisaged as a critical juncture to evaluate the effectiveness of existing drug policies and to debate alternative strategies that could achieve better outcomes for the health and welfare of humankind—the objective of the international drug treaties. In the lead-up to the Ungass, many governments including the United States, Uruguay and Colombia, called for a shift in drug policies from a focus on law enforcement toward public health. Notably last year, Thailand’s minister of justice, Gen. Paiboon Khumchaya, publicly acknowledged the goal of eradicating drugs as counterproductive, leading only to systemic police corruption, and prisons overcrowded with low-level drug offenders from impoverished backgrounds.
With the Ungass, the Philippines was similarly presented with an opportunity to revisit and revise its drug policy and move away from punitive drug laws that are ineffective in addressing drug problems and are detrimental to public health. It should review its laws criminalizing people who use drugs and disproportionately punishing low-level offenders, and create new policies that allow evidence-based harm reduction services such as needle-and-syringe exchange programs.
In this context, it is disconcerting that Duterte is proposing to divert resources toward militarizing the drug enforcement response. Such action risks escalating violence, at great cost to human life and the security of communities, with virtually no chance of success in even suppressing drug markets. This is the lesson learned by governments around the world that have attempted to fight drug problems with violence and punishment. Many of them are now calling for drug policies based on health and human rights. For the Philippines to go against this trend is to perpetuate the devastating consequences of unjust and ineffective drug policies, and the waste of already scarce resources, without improving outcomes for the health and security of communities.
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