Dealing with the ‘War on Drugs’

Much have been written about the President’s head-on campaign against illegal drugs. Government itself has been portrayed as a virtual police state that represses its own citizens. But how accurate is this perception? How much effort has been afoot to try to change lives, instead of ending them? Yas D. Ocampo reports on the quiet, valiant attempts at reform, renewal, and redemption.

Rehabilitation is hardly the first word associated with drugs. There’s Addiction. Death. Pushers. Cartel. War. Over the past months, the Duterte administration’s “War on Drugs” has claimed thousands of lives, accentuating the sitting president’s personal abhorrence for illegal substances, particularly shabu. 

It has been government’s primary battle cry since Rodrigo Duterte first launched his listening tours around the country in January 2015: how drugs have overtaken public safety, security, and even politics. The potty-mouthed President, who still prefers to be called ‘Mayor,’ has since led the war, even months before he assumed office in July. 

This was the candidate who promised to fill Manila Bay with blood once he assumed the seat of power in the otherwise crime-prone Manila. At that time a reluctant aspirant, Duterte vowed he would get rid of criminality and corruption in the first six months of his term. And a majority of voters was indeed won over. But not long after he rose to power, he himself admitted he had underestimated the magnitude of the drug trade. 
We write this in the middle of November, around five months into Duterte’s presidency.

But beyond the realm of the bloody war, there has been an unseen side as far as the government is concerned. 

While the focus has mainly been on the casualties, to date 700,000 and counting, reportage on the rehabilitative aspect of the war on drugs has been sporadic, at best. And administration critics have pounced on this information gap as proof that in the campaign to rid the country of illegal drugs, there ought to be a rehabilitative component. 

Yet there has, in fact, been a rehabilitative aspect to the program all along.

In a memorandum circular, secretary of Interior and Local Government Mike Sueno instructed local government units to follow a “faith-based” approach to dealing with drugs and its victims. 

MASA MASID, which stands for Mamamayang Ayaw sa Anomalya, Mamamayang Ayaw sa Iligal na Droga, has been in the pipeline as early as July.

Launched last September, the program suggests that faith-based, non-government organizations partner with local government units to deal with the problem from a more grassroots approach. Despite being a government initiative, the DILG partnered with religious groups to smite the menace by helping the hundreds of thousands of drug suspects who have since volunteered to reform and return to the folds of the law.  
Through the barangay anti-drug council, the program involves the DILG, anti-drug abuse council representatives starting from the barangay up, officials of the Liga ng mga Barangay, and the local Philippine National Police Office of each area. 

The most significant bridge in the program is the expansion of the Ugnayan ng mga Barangay at Simbahan, a state and church partnership that seeks to replace the highs brought about by drugs with something more productive instead of the downward spiral associated with addiction. 

The program comprises three phases, from organization to the implementation of a reporting system, with an end result being the periodic update of the progress of each reformist. 
The DILG now uses ‘reformist’ instead of the ungrammatical ‘surrenderee’ (and the more awkward ‘surrenderer’).

But the program will remain policy-speak for the reformists, unless they themselves experience the change.

Translated, MASA-MASID, comprises steps in which reformists can reintegrate as useful members of society. 

Taking its cue from its ‘community-based’ nature, MASA-MASID begins with the advocacy being spread out by word of mouth. These can be done in the form of seminars and other events in the barangay and other community levels, such as the municipal and provincial government. 

This is where the faith-based groups can have more presence, especially with convincing others to change their ways. 

Along the way, the partnership aims to establish an open line between the community and authorities. Hotlines can be established so that monitoring of drug activities may be done in real-time. This also includes interviewing members of the community about the drug situation in their area. Along the way, the team is required to collate a database of information about the reformists and the communities in which they belong. 

The community-based rehabilitation program has volunteers to facilitate the program. This involves a volunteer-based counseling system, a support group comprised of members of the community. 

And along the way, the reformists are given the chance to regain their “sense of purpose.” Some LGUs have turned to sports, with reformists battling it out on the basketball court with police officers instead of real-life gunfights. Some have turned to zumba to help “detoxify” reformists but also to provide an alternative dopamine pleasure once triggered by drugs. 

In Duterte’s Davao City, systematic rehabilitation of drug dependents has been par for the course for more than three decades. A Davao City Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Drug Dependents has been in existence since 1985, and now spends some P1.5 million per month for the care of patients alone.

Mayor Sara Z. Duterte-Carpio, the president’s daughter, has taken this a step further. 

The local government has partnered with the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation as well as a casino operator to invest in a multi-million peso drug rehabilitation facility to augment the existing center. 
The city’s anti-drug abuse council is headed, not surprisingly, by sports coordinator Mikey Aportadera.

In a presentation given to the city council earlier this month, Aportadera said that the city’s stance in rehabilitation involves a multi-pronged approach, and not simply a “war” involving bullets. 
Inday Sara’s program is called TARA NA (literally, “Let’s go!”).

TARA NA stands for Tabangan Atong Reformists Aron Naay Asenso or Tulungan Ating Reformist at Nayon Aasenso. The program involves an intensive six month treatment for addicted reformists, as well as aftercare programs to prevent relapse. Throughout their first six months, the reformists are given a way out of their old life, even while they are inside the rehab facility of the city government. This is done through trainings with TESDA and the city’s Alternative Learning System facility. 

The student then graduates into the formal aftercare program and then the preventive health care package of the city.  

But this is not to say that the task is easy. In Davao City alone, the demand for rehabilitation will be calculated from the almost 10,000 who surrendered to authorities through Tokhang, short for the Cebuano term for “knock and plead.”

This is not to say that the situation is better in the national level. With hundreds of thousands of reformists to be processed, health secretary Paulyn Ubial said that the agency is facing a bottleneck of reformists vis-a-vis the number of doctors who can help in the rehab process.

Duterte said he would need “thousands of doctors and nurses” to help with the rehab. In his recent speeches, the president said the country was likely to spend trillions of pesos if every single reformist was rehabilitated by government. 

Vacant areas within Philippine military bases, meanwhile, have been eyed as potential sites for the establishment of drug rehab centers.

The Dangerous Drugs Board and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency cite the existence of at least 65 drug rehabilitation facilities across the country accredited by the DOH. The DDB itself has prioritized financial assistance for national government agencies’ drug programs.

According to a copy of the National Expenditure Program of the Department of Budget and Management, Duterte’s DDB will allocate at least P77 million, the highest in its budget next to personnel servicing, to the NGA assistance program. This is aside from the projects being conducted by each agency, such as the DILG, DOH, and TESDA for the reformation of former drug personalities. 

Already the Department of Health has announced it would pilot the Mega Rehabilitation Facilities program. Among the first that will be launched is the 10,000-bed facility in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. Secretary Ubial said that the project is expected to be finished before the year’s end. 

The DOH has also pushed for the inclusion of a temporary relief program for drug dependents who wish to rehabilitate. 

Essentially, the ultimate aim for the program is to turn reformists away from their old lives towards a new one. Based on the prevailing figures, this may appear to be an uphill battle: What indeed is the percentage of Ubial’s 10,000 beds and Inday Sara’s Pagcor-donated P40 million facility compared with the roughly 700,000 drug surrenders coming from the rest of the Philippines?

But government pushes through. The first months of the Duterte administration has become a test case for other fledgeling administrations that do not have enough funds to implement their promises for the first months of their term. One can imagine what a better-funded Duterte administration can do, beyond the plans outlined by the DBM.

As it is, the idea appears to be this: an ambitious attempt to help those who wish to start the change within themselves. That is, the person returns to normal life, reformed, instead of ending up being a chalk mark on the pavement and, ultimately, six feet underground.

Photo: Nearly 4,000 illegal drug offeenders in Tagum City, Davao Del Norte attend a mass orientation in a city gym under the local government's campaign, “Seryosong Tagumenyo Ayaw ng Droga.”