Two years have passed since the Rodrigo Duterte administration intensified the anti-drug campaign. But the war on drugs itself has gone on for decades longer — not just here in the Philippines, but all over the world.
In all that time, few have stopped to listen to the people who bear the brunt of these harsh policies: the people who use drugs themselves. And even less have given their testimonies the weight they deserve.
On March 21, NoBox Philippines in collaboration with the University of the Philippines-Diliman and the Office of Chancellor Michael Tan, held a forum to share the results of “Living in the Time Tokhang: Perspectives from Filipino Youth.” This is an ethnographic study whose aim is to understand the situation of the drug users by getting their own views or perspectives. The study led by medical anthropologist Dr. Gideon Lasco, with graduate student Ms. Jana General, explored how young people (18-25 years old) in an urban poor community experienced illicit drugs and the policies surrounding them.
The researchers found young people who use illicit drugs the way legal substances are used. Marijuana is used to relax and socialize just like alcohol. Some even prefer it because it gave them “just the right” amount of laughter and conversations, without the hangover. In the same thread, shabu is used like coffee. Pedicab drivers use it to stay awake and work longer hours to earn more for their families.
Did the young people consider themselves “addicts” because of this? It depends.
They made a clear distinction between those just using (gumagamit lang) and those they saw as “addicted (adik)”. “Nasa’yo naman kung gagamitin mo yung shabu o ikaw yung magpapagamit sa shabu (It’s up to you if it is you who will use shabu, or you will be the one consumed by it),” one of the respondents opined.
Drug use was seen on a spectrum, which reflects what many others have begun to understand. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that the majority of people (9 out of every 10) who use drugs all over the world do not use drugs in ways that are problematic. Generally, this means they do not hurt anyone, they do not use the substance in ways that increase the risk of disease transmission, or they do not get “addicted” or “dependent” on the substance. They just use substances for functional, social, or other personal reasons. And for many, the only crime they are committing under their laws is the act of using the illicit drugs.
Young people interviewed in the study saw drug use the same way, even frowning upon those who would use shabu to boost energy for illegal activities. “Ultimately, shabu will only help you to do what you already have in mind,” said Reuben, one of the respondents.
So what does this mean for Philippine drug policy?
Whenever someone uses illicit drugs in the Philippines, our response is a toss-up between two choices: arrest or rehabilitation. This study, along with the growing body of evidence of how people experience illicit drug use suggests these choices are not enough. In fact, for many, arrest or rehabilitation might be harmful or just a plain waste of resources.
The study showed people who neither want nor need rehabilitation, and definitely none who need a jail cell. Reuben recounted how he had stopped using shabu without any help after his son was born — a son who wouldn’t benefit from a father behind bars.
“We must be open to different approaches. What else can we do to help these young people in these communities? These young people are voiceless and we need to find ways to engage them and help them,” Dr. Gideon Lasco emphasized.
It wasn’t easy to get these stories from the respondents. They live in a community where death squads murdered people suspected of using drugs even before 2016. They had little trust in the government or law enforcement after experiencing its corruption firsthand.
But it was necessary in order to hear these narratives. It was necessary to establish a safe space where these young people could talk openly about their experiences with illicit drug use without fearing for their lives or future. And if we want illicit drug policies that are responsive to the experience of the Filipino people, we need more conversations like these.
“With discussions like this, we begin to see and continue to learn, and embrace people who use drugs as part of humanity,” NoBox Philippines’ founder, Ma. Inez Feria underscored. “This isn’t just a criminal or public health issue, it’s a human issue. At the end of the day, it’s not about the drugs, it’s always about the people.”
Patrick Angeles is a Policy and Research Officer at NoBox Philippines. You can find the full study at nobox.ph/Living_in_the_Time_of_Tokhang. NoBox Philippines is a partner of Action for Economic Reforms.