Duterte's Drug War Failure

Meth use remains rampant in the Philippines despite deaths of thousands

The deaths of thousands of actual or alleged drug dealers and users, and of uncounted innocent people and victims of vendettas, the Philippines shows scant sign of even alleviating, not to mention ending, its drug problem. In this respect, it is hardly unique. Drugs, mostly methamphetamine or crystal meth, remain rampant and usage appears to have been little affected overall even by the pandemic and its travel restrictions.

What distinguishes the Philippines from its neighbors is the violent, bloodthirsty policy of its President, Rodrigo Duterte, assisted by a police force with a reputation for extrajudicial killing for its own sake in fictional “shoot-outs” with alleged drug dealers. A high kill rate has apparently helped promotions as well as being a handy tool to eliminate personal enemies or political opponents.

Such is the state of law and order in a country which wears Christianity, in various forms, on its sleeve and where Duterte is hailed a hero by a public which mostly prefers to turn a blind eye to the slaughter. Although he is due to be termed out after his six years in power, he is popular enough to have his ruling political party PDP-Laban endorse him as vice presidential candidate, possibly running with his daughter as a presidential one, as a back-door return to power.

Assessing illegal drug use and availability is not very precise. Recently published figures show no persistent downtrend in the period 2016-2020 and indeed in 2020 seizures of shabu, as crystalline methamphetamine is known in the Philippines, increased compared to 2019 even in the face of the lockdowns. The data on the Philippines is part of a survey of drug issues in Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia Latest Developments and Challenges from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Seizures of shabu vary from year to year but it is hard to see any consistent trend. The same applies to cannabis, the second most popular illegal drug. There has however been a very steep rise in Ecstasy seizures while those of cocaine, mostly a drug of the wealthier classes, have varied widely from year to year.

Even more telling about the real impact of Duterte’s drug war on his own people is the price trend, which directly reflects the balance between supply and demand. Since 2016 when the “war” began, shabu prices have fluctuated only a little from year to year and fell slightly in 2020. At the same time, however, there was a significant decline in purity, which may indicate some increase in risk. Ecstasy and cocaine prices have been quite stable since 2017 – there are no records for prior years – while cannabis prices have fallen.

These consumption data indicate steady overall use despite a rise in number of drug arrests from around 20,000 in 2015 to a peak of about 60,000 in 2019 before falling to around 50,000 in 2020. The sheer number of arrests puts the death numbers into perspective and suggests that most arrestees get off very lightly, an indication of the arbitrary nature of the extrajudicial killings. The authorities mostly seem to consider drug use and even small-time drug peddling as a misdemeanor, not a major crime unless there is someone they want to shoot.

Meanwhile, the number of admissions of treatment for drug dependence and overdose fell by half in 2020, presumably a response to lockdowns. But even at their peak in 2016 at over 6,000, admissions remain small relative to use as shabu is not regarded as highly addictive and many users are only occasional. Some of the admissions relate to various synthetics summarized as New Psychoactive Substances, and old one such as non-medical use of benzodiazepines. Non-prescription opioid use is low – despite a belief that Duterte himself was once a regular user of Fentanyl.

More broadly the UN reports that methamphetamine traffic fell in the first half of 2020 but then rose strongly as new routes were found. Prices remained stable in such major consumption centers as Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia despite increased seizure. It sees a direct link between volume of seizures and demand.

There was also a rise in Ecstasy availability, though from a low base. There appears from the data to have been a decline in local manufacturing, with few seizures of manufacturing facilities in Malaysia, China, etc, but no shortage of supply from Myanmar despite suppression efforts (before the coup).

The main difference with the Philippines is that these countries regard it as social/medical issue and while dealing harshly with those traders they can catch, they accept that this is not a “war” they can win with mass executions.

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