An alternative to Duterte’s war? Facing Filipinos’ drugs demons

Photo: Radspunk / CC BY-SA

Insights into Filipino public opinion show people still value human life in the depths of Duterte’s drug war. But over-burdened rehabilitation centres mean there is little hope for people that desperately want to change their lives.

By Dung Phan

In the recent survey by Social Weather Stations, 84 per cent of people said they are satisfied with the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs. But there is another interesting point raised in the data which was largely ignored in many other reports: the notion of keeping drug suspects alive.

94 per cent of respondents (in which 71 per cent said it was “very important” and 23 per cent said it was “somewhat important) agreed that suspects should be kept alive. Only 2 per cent disagreed.

Even though the overall support for Duterte’s antinarcotics campaign is still high, this majority response shows widespread concerns about the extrajudicial killings. In other words, keeping suspects alive is crucial to the long-term satisfaction of citizens.

Unfortunately, Duterte does not seem to share the same sentiment. He has likened addicts of shabu – a cheap form of methamphetamine – to zombies, saying those “who are [already] in shabu for almost one year are [practically] dead.” He also claimed that the drug abuse shrinks the brain so much that its users are “no longer viable for rehabilitation.”

However, Robert Ali, a specialist in addiction medicine at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said methamphetamine does not “shrink brains,” adding that “early intervention works but requires a sense that seeking help won’t lead to arrest and punishment.”


A recovering drug addict going through the process of detoxification faces a wide range of withdrawal symptoms. And there may be no total recovery as shabu causes some permanent damage to the brain. “Detoxification removes toxins. We address health issues inside the facility. If they have tuberculosis, we cure them,” said Alfonso A. Villaroman, Bicutan’s chief health officer in Taguig City in the south of Manila.

But unfortunately in a country where there are less than 50 residential treatment and rehabilitation centres, the government is unprepared for the sheer volume of addicts suddenly seeking help. The number of patients in a facility is typically more than three or times as many as the unit can accommodate.

In the Department of Health-Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre (DOH-TRC) in Bicutan, for example, the ratio of patients to psychologists is 1:150. “Everybody’s talking about building rehab centres, but not much about developing capacity or setting standards” for community-based treatment for methamphetamine users, said Inez Feria, the director of No-Box Transitions Foundation, an advocacy group focusing on drug policy in the Philippines.

And not everyone can afford the proper treatment. In such private centres where you can get reputable and good quality programs, the cost is around $2,500 per month. That is basically out of reach for most shabu users who are low-income workers.

Nevertheless, no matter how good the treatment plan is, it cannot guarantee 100 per cent success. Although a majority of Filipinos think drug suspects should not be killed, many have seen the extrajudicial killings as an evil approach to get rid of the far worse menaces of drug addicts and the criminality linked with them.

Some even consider the death of innocents as necessary “sacrifices” even though they believe the increasing death toll “is not right.” In the early 1970s, Philippine bishops started to acknowledge drug criminals as “saboteurs of the country, worse than traitors” or those “are worthy of the highest punishments.” That sentiment seems to be returning in some quarters.

The question now is why drug users should try to recover from their addiction while they are not sure if society will welcome the kind of people that their leader is “happy to slaughter?” The problem lies not only with drug users, but also the popular misunderstanding about the drug war, and a lack of information about the true extent and nature of drug use.

Will there be another way to tackle shabu or drug issues? That will depend on when Filipinos start to change their belief that more than three million addicts deserve the harshest punishment. And when those people who do want to turn their lives around have somewhere to go. For now, at least, the streets may well seem the only option.