THE POINT BEING: On drug addiction and SONA 2016

(This piece was first published in two parts on July 29 and 30 in Sun.Star Davao where Mags Z. Maglana writes a weekly column, “The Point Being.” Permission to reprint granted MindaNews)

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 August) — In his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) among the memorable lines that President Rodrigo Duterte said was, “human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country – your country and my country” – this, and the many other statements that referred to illegal drugs.

Michael Moore, the American documentary filmmaker and author known for his critique of the current state of American politics, economics and culture, featured dealing with drug addiction in his production “Where to Invade Next,” a documentary premised on the idea of identifying and “stealing great ideas” of other countries that could be brought back to the United States–hence the notion of invasion, but minus the violence that it usually entails.

The segment on Portugal focused on its unorthodox approach to a massive problem with illegal drugs. Moore interviewed Portuguese policemen, one of whom had this to say about fighting drugs: “human dignity is the backbone of our society. And all laws have to be based on respecting and following that principle. And those principles are instilled in us, even in our training as policemen.”

Channel One News reported in a feature that in the 1980s, one in every one hundred Portuguese was a heroin user and it was not uncommon for heroin users to die in the streets. Then in 2001 after ferociously waging a war on drugs for two decades the country decriminalized personal possession and use in small amounts–it did not legalize drugs but it shifted the mindset about drug use as a health problem rather than a criminal problem.

Those caught possessing in excess of the set amounts (under three grams for marijuana, below a gram for heroin, and less than two grams for cocaine), according to Lisbon Police Commissioner Nelson Ribeiro in the Channel One News feature, were fined and sent to rehabilitation. The Portuguese government continued to go after drug suppliers but only 10 percent of its resources went to law enforcement, while 90 percent was for treatment and rehabilitation.

The news segment claimed that over time drug-caused deaths went down by 80 percent, the number of heroin addicts was reduced by 50 percent, and very few went to prison because of drug abuse.

The statements of the Portuguese police in the Moore documentary resonated with me, in part because it connected with the statement of President Duterte on human dignity.

But more importantly because it indicated other less violent and more effective approaches to drug abuse, and one which in particular was underpinned by a concern for human dignity, which one is hard pressed to find in the increasing number people killed in cold blood due to drugs.

Using police data journalists Vino Lucero and Malou Mangahas estimated that the number of people killed thus far averaged 10 persons a day in the first three weeks of the new administration compared to an average of about one person killed every 10 days during the 78-month period of January 2010 to June 2016.

What has turned out to be a bloody war on drugs in the early days of the Duterte administration has elicited divided reactions from key sectors of society.

Personages associated with the Catholic Church and other civil society leaders have spoken up against what has become a daily body count. But social media discourse continues to be dominated by outright and tacit endorsements, and compounded by deliberate silence about the issue, perhaps mirroring what Fr. Amado Picardal, CSsR described as the absence of a “moral outcry”.

It has come to a point where the divisions seem to have boiled down to a simplistic one: being critical of drug-related killings means one tolerates criminality and is out of touch of the problems of the country, and emanates from being anti-Duterte. A corollary to the above conclusion is the charge that all who are supportive of addressing criminality and the Duterte administration are also accommodating towards extra-judicial killings.

These views, which have only stoked the divisions spawned by the May 2016 elections campaign, are by no means representative of those who struggle to meaningfully respond to the challenges of the times.

Avoiding simplistic conclusions

We Filipinos have to avoid the traps of simplistic conclusions and retake responsibility for the narrative about drug addiction in the country. For starters, there needs to be a more updated understanding of the nature of drug addiction, and the situation of illegal drugs trade in the Philippines.

Equating illegal drugs with crime is a direct and uncomplicated message and is thus convenient in the delivery. However, lost in this simplism are the many ways that drugs and crime interact.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ), for instance, recognized variations in the drug/crime relationship and makes distinctions among 1) drug-defined and 2) drug-related offenses, and a 3) drug-using lifestyle.

Based on the US DOJ 1994 definitions, drug-defined offenses pertain to infractions against laws that prohibit or regulate the possession, use, distribution, or manufacture of illegal drugs, of which many drug users are perceived to be guilty. Drug-related offenses are those crimes to which a drug’s pharmacologic effects contribute; among the examples cited: “violent behavior resulting from drug effects, stealing, to get money to buy drugs, and violence against rival drug dealer” – which are crimes that many Filipinos are genuinely bothered about. A drug-using lifestyle is one where drug use and crime are meshed, where “likelihood and frequency of involvement in illegal activity is increased because drug users may not participate in the legitimate economy and are exposed to situations that encourage crime”.

The dominant narratives in the country today assume that drug-defined offenses (i.e., possession and use) automatically cause drug-related crimes (e.g., aggressive behavior, stealing, and rape); or worse, lead to the more reprehensible drug-using lifestyle. This lumping together of valid categories underpins the indiscriminate attacks against anyone associated with drugs, with no distinctions being made between users, and those actively involved in its commerce.

However, while the US DOJ noted in a report (Fact Sheet: Drug-Related Crime) that “drug users are more likely than nonusers to commit crimes, that arrestees and inmates were often under the influence of a drug at the time they committed their offense, and that drug trafficking generates violence”, they cautioned about zeroing in on the drug/crime relationship arguing that “most crimes result from a variety of factors (personal, situational, cultural, economic), so even when drugs are a cause, they are likely to be only one factor among many”. The US DOJ concluded that given inconsistent definitions and “problematic evidence, it is impossible to say quantitatively how much drugs influence the occurrence of crime”.

To those who would dismiss the above points as being borne out of a study that is dated and not of the Philippine context, the point is that these matters precisely need to be studied to guide policy-setting and programming.

A quick review of the website of the Philippine Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), which is mandated to make policies and strategies in the planning and formulation of policies and programs on drug prevention and control, features researches dated from 2002 to 2012, but nothing more recent.

While the research topics are varied, there is no inquiry into the relationship of drugs-crime, an area central to the Philippine drug discourse today, providing the main rationalization for the summary execution of suspected addicts and pushers alike.

Aside from news accounts of violent and sexual crimes allegedly committed under the influence of drugs, there appears to be no serious and long-term studies that offer insights into the relationships of drugs and other forms of crime.

The data on the estimated 1.3 million drug users in the country is based on a 2012 Household Survey on the Nature and Extent of Drug Abuse in the Philippines by the DDB and the Philippine Normal University.

Interestingly, a 2008 DDB study put the number of drug users to at most 1.7 million and pointed out that it is “far below the 6.7 million estimated in 2004“.

We are keen to know if more studies are in the offing because of the wide discrepancies of the past figures, and the claims of Pres. Duterte in the SONA that the estimates of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) two to three years ago were at 3 million drug addicts in this country, and the President’s own “liberal addition” of 700,000 put current calculations at 3.7 million.

To those who would protest that no such inquiries are required in the face of daily observed and reported realities, we can only point to the wisdom and advantages of evidence-based decision-making, and also to the many examples of both excesses and inadequacies brought about by kneejerk, short-term and ill thought-out responses.

The PDEA 2015 Annual Report claimed that of 42,036 barangays nationwide, 26.93 percent (11,321 barangays) were drug-affected, with the National Capital Region at the top (99.26 percent of its 1,706 barangays affected), with Regions 4A and 7 coming in second and third most affected. These are troubling figures indeed. But it would have also provided us additional perspective had there been more details on whether the barangays are -applying government classification-slightly, moderately or seriously affected.

Barangays are considered drug-affected in the presence of a drug user, pusher, manufacturer, marijuana cultivator or other drug personality in the community regardless of numbers. A barangay is classified “slightly affected” when identified drug users are in the community but without known drug pushers or traffickers; “moderately affected” if a suspected drug pusher or trafficker is operating in the area; and only becomes “seriously affected” if an alleged drug laboratory, den, dive or resort is suspected to operate in the barangay.

The classification matters because without differentiation, we can be spurred into sanctioning policies and actions while under the thrall of an illegal drug bogeyman. For example, in 2014, PDEA reported that 527 barangays were categorized as seriously affected. While one seriously affected barangay is already one barangay too many, the data provides a context to and scale against which to better appreciate the 2015 figure of 11,321 barangays regarded as drug-affected.

President Duterte also said in the Sona that reservists will be marshaled for information campaign against drug use and to communicate information on government drug rehabilitation programs. I would have actually argued for more citizens involvement via the family.

RA 9165, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, holds the family “primarily responsible for the education and awareness of the members of the family on the ill effects of dangerous drugs and close monitoring of family members who may be susceptible to drug abuse”.

Held as the basic unit of society and with such clear and key responsibilities, the family is part of the discourse on illegal drugs and the spate of killings. And here I venture to expand the notion of family as going beyond the nuclear family, and encompassing the families that are created by choice: the circles, groups and communities that sustain us in our localities, schools, workplaces, and even online.

Silence and inaction on the part of citizens in the face of the indiscriminate killings of people perceived to be involved in drugs are an acceptance that the family has failed in the fulfillment of its role.

Silence and inaction are also akin to surrendering the family’s mandate of prevention in favor of the exterminatory ways of irresponsible members of the security sector, and death squads.

The failure and surrender are particularly unfortunate because the DDB itself defines drug addiction as “a complex, and often chronic, brain disease… characterized by excessive drug craving, seeking, and use”.

Many addicts, according to a DDB study, use drugs because of “peer pressure, want(ing) to experience drugs, and curiosity”.

To dismiss as criminals that deserve to be killed, those fellow citizens who are in fact sick and in need of help, and those whose guilt have yet to be proven beyond doubt-this attitude does not seem to be consistent with the values of malasakit and pakikipagkapwa which are said to imbue the many different cultures in the country, and weakens that which enable us to claim that this your country and mine.

This dismissal, which in a manner of speaking is a shielding and an excuse, is certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the final call of President Duterte in the Sona: “we have a bond to act together. We have to help each other. For then and only then can we truly prevail”.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. This piece was first published in two parts on July 29 and 30 in Sun.Star Davao, where Mags Z. Maglana writes a weekly column, “The Point Being.” Permission to reprint this was granted MindaNews. Please email feedback to [email protected])