Saving Lives Is Dangerous in the Philippines' Bloody Drug War

As thousands have been killed in President Duterte's drug war, some government officials are learning to treat people who use drugs with empathy.
November 5, 2019, 6:34pm
A woman mourns her brother lost in the drug war in the Philippines. Screenshot courtesy of Rat Park​
A woman mourns her brother lost in the drug war in the Philippines. Screenshot courtesy of "Rat Park"

VICE’s new documentary, Rat Park, is now available on Crave.

Government officials from around Manila frantically stuck pieces of paper with names of various stimulants and street drugs onto a whiteboard. They had only a few minutes to identify the photos of substances from cocaine and weed to alcohol and cigarettes.

“No Googling allowed!” Ruod Ariete, one of the workshop’s organizers, bellowed into the microphone. The officials and other community leaders had gathered in this bright conference room in a resort on the outskirts of the Philippines capital late last year for a workshop on harm reduction and drug education.

A VICE crew attended the event during the production of Rat Park, our latest feature documentary that explores the effects of drug policies in the best and worst places in the world to use drugs. In Portugal, where drug use has been decriminalized since 2001, we witnessed one of the most humane approaches to drug policy.

While the Philippines is arguably among the most dangerous places for drug users, advocates are doing what they can to chip away at the stigma and criminalization of drug use. But the task is daunting as the ongoing anti-drug campaign remains popular among the vast majority of the population.

At the workshop in Manila, intense debate ensued among the people representing their home districts—“barangays”—as they tried to name each drug.

One woman flipped through a pile of papers with different drug names on her lap: Ecstasy, GHB, tsongki (cannabis), poppers. She muttered that she had never heard of most of these drugs before.

There is no translation for harm reduction in local languages

“If this one is fentanyl, what’s that one?” asked another woman, holding up two different photos.

“If you really don’t know, just guess,” Ariete said.

These 50 or so barangay representatives had come together for the workshop hosted by NoBox Philippines, a local non-profit, to learn about harm reduction, a framework of strategies that helps curb harmful effects of substance abuse, amid the country’s bloody drug war.

But harm reduction is a largely unknown concept across the Philippines, where there isn’t even a translation for the phrase in local languages.

Since Duterte came to power in 2016, an estimated 30,000 people have been killed by police or vigilantes for alleged involvement with illicit substances in the name of turning the Philippines into a drug-free nation. Thousands more have been placed on government watchlists or forced into drug treatment.

A body is covered with a cardboard box. Screenshot courtesy of

Since Duterte came to power in 2016, an estimated 30,000 people have been killed for alleged involvement with drugs. Screenshot courtesy of "Rat Park"

While the government claims its tactics will reduce crime and curb substance use, human rights advocates have decried the extrajudicial killings and violence as unjust and an excuse to target poor and vulnerable communities, as well as others perceived as threats to the government, such as human rights defenders and journalists.

This week, Duterte appointed his main political opponent, Vice President Leni Robredo, as his “drug czar” following harsh comments she made about his anti-drug crusade, that drug use should be viewed largely through a health and social lens. She is expected to respond to the appointment on Wednesday, but her spokesperson has described it as mere “theatre.”

These workshop participants, elected officials representing a tiny fraction of the more than 42,000 barangays in the Philippines, are responsible for the health and safety of their communities, while at the same time abiding by Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that’s still widely supported by most people in the country.

For most of them, this workshop was their first time openly discussing drug use and drug policies without fear of reprisals.

Leaders immersed themselves in the tenets of harm reduction: meeting people who use drugs where they’re at and making them feel safe to access health services—regardless of whether or not they continue to use.

Classifying drugs at a harm reduction workshop in Manila.

Classifying drugs at a harm reduction workshop in Manila.

The workshop’s drug-naming game, called The Wonderful World of Drugs, served as a palate cleanser in between the more serious discussions tackled throughout the day around stigma, addiction, and the effects of drug criminalization.

One of the only images on the whiteboard the groups seemed to agree on was the crystals of shabu, slang for the cheap methamphetamine that is one of the most common drugs in the Philippines and has become a particular target of the police.

“Somebody [can] be using shabu because it helps him function. Why? It keeps you alert, awake for a longer periods,” another workshop facilitator told the group.

“So they can drive for longer periods of time, thus they can earn more in their taxi job. And it also suppresses appetite, so you don’t even have to stop to eat.”

The group’s next task was to categorize the different drugs.

“It’s up to you on how you will group them,” Ariete instructed.

“Shabu, ecstasy, LSD, they all belong together, I think … because they’re all chemicals,” a woman on one team stated, looking confused.

“The ecstasy, is that snorted?”

Ariete assured her there are no bad questions.

Another woman stood up and addressed Ariete. “To be honest, it was hard for us to classify them because some were new to us, and we really weren’t familiar [with them].”

“Thank you for being honest,” Ariete said with a laugh. “Because today we learned that we should always be honest.”

Inez Feria, the founder of NoBox who organizes the workshops, exudes warmth even when she talks about the death and destruction stemming from Duterte’s drug war. She always steers the conversation back to how she’s optimistic about the future.

“I’ve actually had someone say how the Philippines is hopeless and I said, ‘No, it’s not,” Feria said in an interview at the NoBox headquarters in Quezon City.

She refrains from even referring to Duterte’s drug policies as a “war.”

“That legitimizes what it is,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is get away from that conversation of it being a war.”

Feria initially helped run a drug rehabilitation centre. But in 2014, she rethought the whole thing, and turned her efforts toward harm reduction research and advocacy.

NoBox founder Inez Feria. Photo courtesy of NoBox

NoBox founder Inez Feria. Photo courtesy of NoBox

The office bookshelves hold multiple copies of the book High Price by American neuroscientist Carl Hart, head of psychology at New York City’s Columbia University.

“He’s definitely one of my heroes,” Feria said looking up at a framed photo of Hart hanging on the wall.

Hart, renowned for debunking myths around drugs such as methamphetamine and crack, gave a speech in Manila in 2017 in which he criticized Duterte’s drug policies. He also disputed the claim that meth shrinks the brain and causes violent behaviour.

Duterte swiftly condemned Hart, calling him “a son of a bitch who has gone crazy,” according to local media reports. Hart then received death threats for his remarks, and fled the country.

“In the Philippines, people will pay anywhere from $100 to $500 to kill people,” Hart told reporters at the time. “I had to take it seriously.”

This hostile climate has made it difficult to discuss harm reduction openly—let alone convince government officials of its merit. But as the death toll has reached into the thousands, Feria says many Filipino people have reached a tipping point.

Over the last year, Feria has seen an increase in requests from government officials and members of the public for more information about harm reduction. This level of interest did not exist prior to the Duterte administration.

Some Filipino politicians are even attempting to push through two recent pieces of legislation that, if passed, would create better support services for people with drug addiction.

The Public Health Intervention For Drug Use Act, filed in the lower house of Congress in 2017, states that people with drug addiction are better served through the healthcare system and not the criminal justice system.

The other bill, dubbed the Harm Reduction Act, was filed in the Senate around the same time. If passed, it would establish a national centre and agency dedicated to harm reduction and, extraordinarily, it would allow for those charged with low-level possession to be diverted through the healthcare system. Further, it would prohibit “discriminatory drug-related interventions and practices.”

Both pieces of legislation sit in procedural limbo, and it’s unclear when or if they will be implemented.

But it’s efforts like this, Feria says, that could change the way law enforcement views drug use, whoever is president.

“People are now more awake to the truth. People won’t just accept this way of doing things,” Feria said.

Back at the workshop, participants sat in a circle around Feria as she explained how if people fear the threat of being arrested, then the government services being offered cannot be effective.

Feria said that rehab—often “snatching someone and putting them in a centre”—and abstinence are not always the answers for people with problematic drug use.

She took a few steps toward a woman seated on her left. “Maybe you know a lot of people that use but didn’t go to rehab,” she said. “Do you want to share?”

"The truth is he's not an addict. He's a victim of the system"

The woman introduced herself as Crisanta Gatlabayan, a pastor and councillor for a barangay in Antipolo. Gatlabayan said it was her second time attending one of these seminars.

“My partner became an addict,” she said carefully in Tagalog as she locked eyes with those around her. “You can talk about me behind my back if you want.”

Members of the Gatlabayan family hold high positions in government. She said she used to be afraid of how her husband’s addiction would affect their reputation. And, as a government official herself, she had to choose between her husband and her duties.

In the end, it was the principles of harm reduction that changed the way she thought about her husband’s drug use. Instead of placing him in rehab, she and her family supported him.

“He doesn’t need to be jailed, nor be placed in rehab. Because the truth is he’s not an addict,” she said. “He’s a victim of the system.”

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