Why the drug war failed

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - October 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Our fascination with drugs, particularly those that are supposed to bring us pleasure and respite from pain, is rooted in the past and in human natural curiosity. Ancient Filipinos had their teeth filed and extracted, and this must have evoked unbearable pain. Doctors and historians explained to me that they braved the pain by chewing a particular drug or weed that numbed the nerves. 

Continuing research on marijuana’s medicinal qualities has resulted in its decriminalization in many countries. The temptation for artists to use drugs for their mind-expanding properties is very strong, but there is little evidence that drug users have created great art or literature. There is nothing like the original creative mind, unsullied by drugs, to create great art.

In the 1950s, Bangkok still had opium dens. They were for the workers and the poorer classes, and were decrepit and smelly. Middle class and affluent Thais smoked opium in the comfort of their homes. Opium, which is like thick molasses, is placed in a pipe, then burned, and the smoker inhales the smoke. 

In Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, opium was readily available and I bought a tin. I declared it at the airport and the customs people thought it was a joke and laughed. I was not able to bring a pipe so I went around the shops and Chinese drugstores in Binondo looking for one. I did not find any. 

Opium was easily available, too, in Burma and Vietnam. The poppy plant, from which opium is derived, is beautiful when it blooms. It grows well in cooler climates and I have wondered why it was not grown in the Cordilleras or Bukidnon. Marijuana grows everywhere, but is often unnoticed for what it is. Smoking marijuana is illegal in Bhutan, where it grows wild and abundantly, and is used as hog feed.

The ancients knew drugs and the royal courts of Europe used it. The Chinese brought it to the country and it was known to the conquistador. The more expensive and sophisticated forms were used by the rich and famous, for which reason we often read of celebrities dying of overdose. 

Shabu, produced cheaply and widely available, popularized drug addiction. There is no neighborhood in the country today that is not witness to how it destroys an individual and wrecks a family – from the poorest slums to the gated villages.

It was necessary and inevitable for President Duterte to declare a war on drugs, something that past administrations had failed to do. And now, this bloody war is on its third relentless year. What so many of us disregard is the social origins of drug addiction, primarily among our very poor. The illegality of drugs and addiction set the price of drugs, and it stands to reason that its use should be confined to those who can afford it.

Why then do the poor use it? Primarily to stave off hunger and because shabu is readily available, even in our poorest slums. The same phenomenon is evident in South America, where the poor chewed on coca leaves, from which cocaine can be extracted, to ease hunger and fatigue. Its stimulant effect is sometimes compared to that of coffee in the morning, to wake us up and to do away with the need for breakfast. 

For workers who need to keep long hours of wakefulness – the drivers of jeepneys, taxis and trucks – they keep awake with shabu. And those scavengers on our garbage trucks, many of them are not paid at all. They collect those items that are thrown away – paper, plastic, metals, even food – so they can sell them. They work in the foulest conditions, and drugs help them to endure the stench that pervades their very lives. 

Given these miserable facts, which many are unaware of or are distanced from, the drug war should therefore be tempered with this understanding and compassion. The very poor, the pushers included, are unwilling victims of drug abuse.

The figures for the killings from this drug war, which run into the thousands, illustrate clearly why the drug war has failed. It is compounded by the pervasive corruption in the highest places, particularly in our police force, and this is now being illustrated in the ongoing Senate inquiry. 

The best example of how drug addiction can be vanquished is illustrated by Singapore, which is very harsh not only on the mules that carry the drugs but most of all on the drug lords themselves who are sentenced to death if caught. And in Singapore, justice is swift.

The sweetest victory, declared Sun Tzu, the Chinese realpolitik sage, is when a territory is won and the enemy surrenders without the victor raising the sword. This is achieved when the enemy is demoralized and is deprived of the will to fight. In the 1880s, the British went to war with China over the opium that the British shipped to that country. As President Duterte himself has admitted, how to dam the source is a major challenge in this drug war.

In case you don’t know, the ninja cops are the policemen who, when they seize kilos of shabu, keep half of the drugs to resell.

The Duterte government has a very good reason to ask for the reinstitution of the death penalty. But given the many deaths by impunity in this drug war, the death penalty may not be necessary – if the drug lords, above all, are meted the penalty that they deserve. I do not see this coming, however – not until the entire government itself, particularly the justice system, is rendered incorruptible and justice finally prevails.

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