War on drugs
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 13, 2016 - 12:00am

CARTAGENA – One day president-elect Rodrigo Duterte may want to explain in detail why he hates the illegal drug trade so much he wants to have traffickers executed.

While a number of heinous crimes have been committed by individuals high on drugs – little girls raped and killed, or mothers murdered by their sons, for example – many more can be traced to poverty.

Drugs of course can cause a lot of other problems apart from violent crime. In our country, it’s a source of corruption, and there’s a real danger that drug money may be used to win political support. Some of the most notorious drug convicts ran their operations when they were barangay officials. Drug convicts continue to corrupt personnel at the National Penitentiary.

Duterte must be aware of reports that communist rebels are also suspected of raising funds from either protecting marijuana plantations or growing cannabis themselves. Colombian rebel groups also do the same with coca plantations.

Drugs can also fry the brains of youths, with the damage often permanent. Parents of such youths will probably support Duterte’s tough stance on drugs.

Duterte seems to be putting the war on drugs front and center in his presidency. But how pervasive is the problem? Is he overlooking other priorities?

It’s difficult to undertake a comprehensive study on the extent of the drug problem in our country. But it would be good to attempt to know the pervasiveness of the abuse of party drugs, the type that killed those five participants at the CloseUp “Forever Summer” concert recently. Lawmen have said some party drugs are so new their active ingredients have not yet been included in the list of banned or regulated substances.

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I’m in this picturesque port city of Colombia, a nation renowned for magic realism and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and notorious for drugs and the violence they engender.

Colombia once accounted for nearly half of the world’s cocaine production, but according to recent reports, it has been overtaken by several other South American countries.

The circumstances are different, but the drugbusters of the Duterte administration may want to take a look at the way the anti-narcotics war has evolved in Colombia. By most accounts, Colombia has achieved significant victories in the war, although it’s still ranked among the 20 most violent countries in the latest Global Peace Index. The homicide rate has dropped and top cartel ringleaders have been neutralized. Ordinary Colombians are benefiting from a tourism boom.

Of course the Colombian drug menace remains. Homicide figures are being reviewed following the discovery of “chop-up houses” used for torturing and dismembering people in several cities including Medellin and the capital Bogota.

Drug dealers feed a demand. You can neutralize the most notorious traffickers, but as long as the demand is there, someone will always take care of the supply. The demand in the Philippines has been around for as long as I can remember, with only the drug of the moment changing. Today it’s shabu, Ecstasy and the new concoctions – “green amore” or “fly high” and “green apple.”

Colombians and certain other South Americans have been chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea for centuries, mainly for medicinal purposes. Even Argentine Pope Francis drank an infusion of coca leaves, chamomile and anise seeds to counter altitude sickness when he visited La Paz, Bolivia last year.

The war on drugs can be expensive; Duterte must be ready with the necessary funds. In Colombia it has cost billions of dollars, with the United States – the top destination for cocaine – bankrolling much of the effort. The US has also ensured the prosecution and incarceration of drug cartel leaders extradited by Colombia.

Duterte may also have to seek the cooperation of banks in preventing drug dealers from laundering their money through the banking system (good luck on this). Banks have been accused of complicity in the global drug trade, unable to resist handling the estimated $100 billion a year from the illegal but hugely lucrative industry. Cocaine money reportedly kept banks afloat after the 2008 financial crisis; one writer calls it a global narco-economy. How much of shabu money is being funneled through our banking system?

South Americans weary of drug-related violence have pointed out that since westerners are the biggest consumers of cocaine, western governments must do their part by curbing demand.

Since the producers are not the biggest consumers, there is also a spreading trend in Latin America to legalize certain aspects of the drug trade, starting with marijuana production. This has been complemented by moves in the United States and other western nations to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

It’s intriguing that Duterte has expressed openness to legalizing medical marijuana. Has he tried it?

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Instead of marijuana, incoming agriculture chief Manny Piñol may want to encourage growers in the Cordilleras and other cannabis-growing areas to plant high-value alternative crops. That’s what Colombia is doing for its coca farmers, although of course no crop, with the possible exception of opium poppies, can be more lucrative than coca.  Prices of Colombia’s other main agricultural export, coffee, cannot top the amounts paid for coca.

Piñol can encourage cutflower production in the highlands; global demand reportedly far outstrips supply. He can initiate R&D for propagating cacao for the production of premium, single-origin fine chocolate. The Malagos district, in Duterte’s very own Davao City, is now producing some of the finest chocolates. Vanilla also offers promise; some Pinoy entrepreneurs have successfully produced beans.

The Colombians are also cracking down on precursor substances used for producing cocaine. Some of the notorious Colombian traffickers reportedly went legit by setting up pharmaceutical enterprises and importing the necessary precursors.

Finally, Colombia is putting emphasis on the fact that the drug menace is a social problem, with harsh punishment reserved only for the notorious traffickers.

In our country, we have a popular saying about saving the user and jailing the pusher. It still makes sense, and it should guide Duterte’s war. Anti-narcotics cops are said to be drawing up a hit list of drug suspects. Fearing for their lives, neighborhood pushers are reportedly presenting themselves to police, promising to mend their ways.

Whether the major traffickers will be cowed in the same way remains to be seen. Money drives the drug trade. Pinoys risk their lives to work as drug mules overseas because of the big money that can be earned quickly. People will kill or be killed for that kind of money.

Drug traffickers need to be sustained by a network of workers. Apart from the iron-hand approach to the war on drugs, Duterte will have to offer that network an attractive alternative to a life of crime.

And he will have to initiate programs to curb the demand for drugs. This aspect of the problem tends to ignore the threat of mass execution.


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