“We can’t kill our way out of the drug problem.”
So says Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros, who this week declared President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs” a failure. Hontiveros is instead calling for a public health solution to the bloodshed that has killed at least 7,022 people since July 1, 2016.
Hontiveros is seeking legislative support for a draft law that will create “an integrated and comprehensive public health approach” to addressing illegal drug use. The move comes too late for the 2,555 suspected drug users and dealers killed by police, as well as the 3,603 killings by “unidentified gunmen” since last July. But if Hontiveros can marshal the backing needed to enact her draft law, it might propel a rethinking by the authorities and the public of Duterte’s bloody “drug war.”
Hontiveros is publicly recognizing what an increasing number of governments around the world have already concluded: Destructive “wars on drugs” inflict far more grievous harm on societies than the damage from the drugs themselves. For decades, governments have criminalized the personal use of drugs, as well as their possession, production, and distribution. They have poured billions of dollars into pursuing, killing, prosecuting, extraditing, and imprisoning mostly low-level dealers and users.
Yet, as Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly shown, this type of policy has done little to reduce drug use and instead has had devastating human rights consequences: undermining the rights to health and privacy; serving as an excuse for torture, extrajudicial killings and grossly disproportionate punishment; and galvanizing the organized criminal groups that kill, corrupt, and twist the law to their own ends.
Hontiveros has rightly identified the need for a public health approach to drug problems in the Philippines. But more needs to be done. Human Rights Watch has called on governments around the world to decriminalize all personal use and possession of drugs. We have also urged governments to adopt alternative policies concerning the drug trade to reduce the enormous human rights costs of current approaches, including by reducing the use of the criminal law to regulate drug production and distribution. And we’ve called for reform to global drug treaties and practices that impede exploration of these alternatives.
Philippine lawmakers can both stop the grisly body count of Duterte’s “drug war” and reform the country’s drug policies.