Why futile wars on drugs persist

Why futile wars on drugs persist

This month, two international rights advocate groups highlighted "drug war" killings as a result of the brutal campaign initiated in 2016 by Rodrigo Duterte, the maverick president of the Philippines.

Amnesty International earlier this month cited statistics from the Philippine National Police which indicate that law enforcement agents and what can rightly be identified as death squads carried out 7,025 drug-related killings between July 1, 2016, and Jan 21, 2017 -- roughly 34 a day.

The other report, called "Our Happy Family Is Gone: Impact of the 'War on Drugs' on Children in the Philippines," was released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch. It documented how 23 "drug war" killings have taken a drastic financial and emotional toll on victims' families in six cities and provinces, including Metro Manila.

"I was there when it happened, when my papa was shot. I saw everything, how my papa was shot. Our happy family is gone. We don't have anyone to call father now. We want to be with him, but we can't anymore," one girl, identified as Karla A, said of her father's 2016 killing.

When 32 people were killed over a 24-hour period in 2017 in the province of Bulacan, Mr Duterte was cavalier in his response: "Let's kill another 32 every day. Maybe we can reduce what ails this country."

His wish, it seems, was also his command. And yet while police have seemingly killed street-level pushers and peddlers with impunity, critics allege that known drug suppliers are given a pass.

The brutal campaign drew condemnation domestically and internationally. Mr Duterte has had no hesitation to silence, or cut off relations with, his critics.

Three years ago he threw Senator Leila de Lima in jail for her harsh opposition to his violent anti-drug campaign that was criticised for disproportionate punishment. Most of those killed were street-level pushers and peddlers, while big suppliers were mostly off the hook.

Last year, Mr Duterte ordered his government to suspend all loan and grant negotiations with the 18 Western countries that voted for a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on his signature campaign. It was reported earlier this year that Manila was planning to reconnect with those countries to resume aid and loan negotiations.

The fact is: few have realised that brutal crackdowns on illicit drugs, which have been employed by several governments, are not a panacea and will never be. If used as a sole measure, the tactic tends to fail.

Thailand in the time of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra also had its version of the drug war that killed several thousand in the early 2000s. Like the Philippines, no big fish were caught.

According to UNODC, Bangkok and Manila continue to be the biggest markets for methamphetamine in Southeast Asia.

Mainstream studies and experiments on narcotics, mostly involving rats in confinement, have been seen as lending support to drug crackdowns.

Typically, the studies demonstrate lab animals can be taught to self-administer cocaine, sometimes until the point of death. In short, they show these drugs are addictive beyond belief, a scourge that must be stamped out at any cost.

This explains why many governments rarely think of abandoning crackdowns, or in the Philippines, how a crackdown can accelerate into a brutal "war on drugs".

Yet there is another study, known as "Rat Park", carried out in the late 1970s. The study, which had gained little traction until recently, provides a different angle through which to consider addiction.

The premise of the study was simple. Rather than leave rats isolated in tiny cages with nothing to take but drugs, Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander built an 8.8 square metre rodent amusement park where rats of both sexes could find a large amount of food, running wheels, nesting areas and. most importantly, fellow rats.

The results were stunning. In this "enriched environment", the rats chose the plain water over the narcotics-laced drink. Use of the drug bottle was at best recreational, and overdoses never happened.

The study does a great deal to undermine the idea that addiction is strictly a pharmacological matter. Social circumstances play a large role in drug dependency as well.

But for men like Mr Duterte, it has always been easier to kill the poor rather than create the type of social circumstances that will disincentivise drug use.

And when one is unwilling, unable or potentially profiting from the consequences of massive wealth inequality, sometimes it becomes much easier to go to war with a symptom of despair rather than cure it.

If only it were easier for nations to build "rat parks" rather than treat non-violent offenders like criminals and put them in cages ... or worse.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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