What It’s Like to Deal Drugs in a Country with the Harshest Penalties in the World

Thousands of Filipino citizens have been killed in President Duterte's violent war on drugs. VICE meets a local dealer to learn why anyone would run the huge risk of selling when your life is literally on the line.
July 8, 2019, 12:05am
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'Hey, you around?' is VICE's column asking drug dealers not just what they're selling, but how they're doing.

Datu Puti *, 44, is from Manila, Philippines and has been selling all cannabis products (hash, herb, CBD, edibles, medicals, cartridges, etc), for 16 years. The Philippines hold some of the world’s harshest penalties for using, possessing, and dealing drugs. Between July 2016 and November 2018 President Duterte has lead a war on drugs that official reports claim has lead to the deaths of over 5000 citizens. Although human rights groups place the number at closer to 12,000.

VICE: Hey, you around?
Puti: Opo, Kapatid, (yes, sister) how may I help you?

What do you sell and where?
I sell cannabis in its many forms, around the city or sent around the country. We import, we make, we grow, and we source locally.

How long have you been dealing drugs and how did you get into it?
A couple of decades. My selling always paralleled my usage. When I started using more varied drugs (E, K, C, downers, hallucinogens), my sales reflected the variety of the drugs I was using, but nowadays I am tamer, and only deal cannabis, which keeps me busy enough as it is.

How do people contact you?
Most of my people are long-time clients, and new people need to be vouched for. People have to ask me first if they can give my number out. The person vouching is, to some extent, responsible for the behavior of the person they recommend.

Do you use social media to sell?
I would not, at this time, open myself up to blind sales on Instagram or whatever. I see Facebook sites with pictures of ounces or whatever, and my first thought is that can't last for very long—and a lot of times it doesn’t. I use some social media avenues, especially for my medical cannabis, but once people contact us, we still have a vetting process. I’m sure I’ll use it more in the future. I just don't like the risk/benefit ratios. The Philippines still has [some of] the most severe punishments for cannabis in the world, so I would rather be cautious.

How has the current administration affected your business?
The administration's stated target was shabu (methamphetamine), and their efforts towards that target did not affect cost or availability of that commodity, despite their reports to the contrary. It did affect cannabis, heavily, with indigenous cannabis production being perhaps 90 percent curtailed. After around 50 years of Cordilleran hashish production, this administration finally found out how to stop production, which is to have recent Police Academy recruits camp out on the plantations. This dearth of local options made people in the industry turn to imported alternatives. People started importing newly-legal Californian herb into the country.

Duterte’s drug war has seen many deaths across the country. How do you manage not getting caught?
Well, I did get caught. It sucked, but what unfolded could have happened at any time, and wasn't reflective of the Duterte era really. Considering the scale of what I do and the length of time I've been doing it, though, once isn't too bad. I am a visible, responsible citizen for the most part. I avoid problems by looking like a normal dude doing normal things.

I don't know anyone in cannabis who utilizes protection [firearms]. A truck worth of weed could go from fields to lungs without armaments of any sort. Meanwhile, a meth dealer is strapped when he goes out to sell 500 pesos' ($10 USD) worth. Different mentality.

What’s your relationship with the cops like?
Our partner years ago was PNP (Philippine National Police), up in Quezon City. I am happy to say we took care of his family, his health, and his village in an honorable manner. However, a few years ago, I got set up by a meth-head chick I didn't know so well. I even told my wife the meet felt weird. I should have followed my instincts because 20 minutes later six dudes were swooping in from the darkness and took me to the police station—not to charge me with crimes but to charge me money, 200,000 pesos ($3,800 USD).

One of the cops grilling me was on meth, and was watching porn while interrogating me, punctuating the “get the money or you're gonna be on the front page of the newspapers” threats with questions about black guys' dicks and how many women I've had sex with. It was very uncomfortable. The chick who set me up got iced picked in the neck six months later. I was asked if I wanted to have her killed (ironically, through other police channels) but I did not want the karma. I guess she made someone else angry too.

In the face of all that violence, what do you love about your job?
It is easy for me to show love and make people happy. It is easy and cheap for me to show them things that they have never seen before, and I like to share. Cannabis is a pretty dynamic and creative field, but the very real criminal status of cannabis requires anyone getting into it to be a bit of an outlaw. I've always had authority issues, so it suits me well I guess.

What do your friends and family think about all of this?
Obviously a lot of them enjoy being test pilots for new products we come up with. I like taking care of people close to me with our medical cannabis line. With business affiliates who have health problems in the family, I always give them medicine for free, because it’s rare that a drug dealer is the hero.

I only tell my parents the good stuff (the medical side), but my wife knows all and has stood by me through the challenges. My seven-year-old kid has already been to a marijuana plantation and knows the difference between CBD and THC. Using what I do to teach him the difference between illegal and immoral has been rewarding to me. I guess it’s like being a rum runner in 1920s prohibition. One day you’ll be validated.

Do you have any other work? Does selling pay the bills?
I work in a call centre close to where I live, but I am busy only about one-third of the time, and use the downtime to organize my 'other business'. I probably earn 3 times my office salary with selling, but I work very hard, seven days a week, night and day.

Will drugs always be a part of your life? Do you have a backup plan?
I don't see why not. I have other skills I can fall back on, but the plan now is to ride this interesting wave to the shore.

Any other interesting anecdotes?
A few months ago my priest blessed our weed: straight up put the bud and our oil on the chapel altar and blessed it. He knows our mission is to help people, make money, and be safe. We're on a mission from God anyway. Plus, he got to keep the weed after he blessed it.

Appreciate your time Datu Puti.
Thank you too :>

*Interviews were conducted over encrypted message and names changed; the interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Shirin Bhandari is a freelance writer who splits her time between India and Manila, Philippines.

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.