THIS week marked the deadliest week yet in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. At least 91 people, including one teenager, were shot dead in an escalation of the ruthless campaign to clear the nation’s streets of drugs, one user at a time.
Throughout his presidency, and the campaign that preceded it, Duterte has touted the merits of his approach, asserting on numerous occasions his desire to kill all those who take or deal in drugs, and once even comparing his death campaign to that of Hitler’s in WWII.
Now, over a year since he took office, estimates of those dead hover around 9,000 with law enforcement claiming 3,451 killings during raids, according to official Philippine National Police (PNP) figures, and the remainder attributed to vigilante gangs.
The killings and violence have, unsurprisingly, targeted mostly poverty-stricken neighbourhoods – the victims usually shot and then drugs and guns often planted to make it look like the assailants had acted in self-defence.
Other than a brief hiatus in January following the death of a South Korean businessman at the hands rogue anti-narcotics police, the campaign has continued on relentlessly and seems to have taken on a new intensity in recent weeks.
Despite receiving widespread international condemnation for the extrajudicial killings, and intense scrutiny over the death of a 17-year-old this week, Duterte has come out to defend his approach with more fervour than ever.
— Phelim Kine 林海 (@PhelimKine) August 10, 2017
On Wednesday, he said it was good that 32 criminals had been killed in a province north of Manila, adding: “Let’s kill another 32 every day. Maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
On Thursday, he said he would not just pardon police officers who killed drug offenders during the anti-narcotics campaign, but also promote them.
But Duterte’s campaign is not just limited to the mass killings that have grabbed the headlines. He has also introduced mandatory drug testing in schools and universities, as well as reintroduced the death penalty for drug related offences. The Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency have also been making concerted efforts to stem the flow of drugs into the country across the borders.
While the brutality of it may make us balk in disgust, Duterte’s prohibitive approach to the drug problem is nothing new. We’ve been here before, countless times.
The global “war on drugs” has been raging for generations, and continues to sanction the killings and violence that have stemmed from this defective policy that has served few and punished many.
A series of international meetings, championed by the US and starting as far back as 1909, culminated in three international drug treaties – in 1961, 1971 and 1988 – approved by almost every nation.
And yet, all these years on, the “war” continues to rage.
Bar a handful of politicians who found that harsh policy and fearmongering was an effective way to gain votes, the policy of strict prohibition has served very few.
Rather than the desired reduction in the international drug market and the danger it poses, production and consumption of drugs such as heroin and cocaine increased and their price fell by 80 percent over a quarter of a century.
In the EU alone, more than 100 new psychoactive drugs are identified every year, some of them much more dangerous than older drugs.
It is the countries that produce and traffic the narcotics that have felt the harshest repercussions of global prohibition. During the six years of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s tenure and his ramped-up efforts in the “war on drugs”, the country saw at least 80,000 Mexicans slaughtered by either drug cartels, police or the army.
Rather than end corruption and violence, this approach has encouraged it, often proving rampant in the police force, the courts and at the highest levels of government.
Does Duterte believe that he is immune to falling victim to such consequences? Does he really think the Philippines will be any different?
Despite his efforts, imports of methamphetamine from China were up four-fold in 2016 compared to the previous year, and Duterte’s own police chief has acknowledged the difficulty of the task at hand.
Duterte himself admitted this month that they simply cannot control the flow of drugs into the country.
The war on drugs is a futile one. There is no way it can be won, and experience has taught us that.
Thankfully that experience is now driving policy in some of the countries most ravaged by the failed strategies of old.
Uruguay became the first nation to regulate recreational cannabis; Portugal has decriminalised drug use and redefined it as a health issue; eight states in the US have approved the taxation and regulation of recreational cannabis; and in 2018, Canada is expected to become the first G7 nation to regulate recreational cannabis.
It appears Duterte is jumping on the prohibition bandwagon just as the global drug control system is beginning to unravel.
Rather than solve the Philippines’ drug epidemic, prohibition has played a part in it getting to such disturbing levels; lining the pockets of corrupt officials and drug traffickers while tearing apart communities and destroying lives. It’s hard to see how the gunning down of poor, young men on unprecedented levels is going to move the discussion in the right direction.
The world has seen for itself that the drug prohibition movement is nothing more than a costly policy that has exacerbated the very issue it was designed to solve. And I find it highly unlikely that Duterte’s latest deadly experiment will provide any evidence to the contrary.