Monday, September 20, 2021

Special Report: Church girds for war against drugs (Second of four parts)

THE Catholic Church has joined the war against illegal drugs, and it says it has an advantage over local governments in the drive to help drug dependents in their path toward recovery.

Under the Cebu Archdiocesan Program for Drug Dependents launched in February 2017, some 10 parishes in Cebu are now helping to rehabilitate more than 100 drug dependents from 14 barangays using the “Lahat Bangon (Labang)” or “Everyone Rise” approach, said Labang program director Tess Tejero.

The archdiocese has mobilized 300 volunteers from the archdiocese and the parishes to help in the program.

Labang was initiated by the Ugnayan ng Barangay at Simbahan (Ubas) to help Oplan Tokhang surrenderers in their rehabilitation and reintegration in society.

“Under Labang, we have a well-defined roadmap. The preparatory phase is one to two months. Direct intervention is four to six months, while aftercare is forever after this because there will always be need for aftercare,” said Fr. Carmelo Diola, chairman of both the Dilaab Foundation Inc. and the Archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Cebu.

Labang began in June 2016 in Barangay Subangdaku, Mandaue City with the barangay captain, the police and Diola, who is a member of the Ubas National Technical Working Group.

The Subangdaku program, with San Roque Parish as partner, has helped 50 drug dependents so far.

Defined roadmap

Under Labang, the preparatory phase involves preparing the surrenderers, families, priests, volunteers and communities. The Ubas is first activated, which means the barangay captain, parish priest and police meet; then expanded to include other sectors, like the recovery community, Diola said.

Parish volunteers are activated. Then the Ubas connects with the drug addicts.

“The barangay, with police, invite surrenderers to join the program because they are the ones who have the list of surrenderers. The volunteers, Ubas and surrenderers meet at the kickoff, where the surrenderers are told about the program, hear testimonies of recovering drug dependents and are invited to join the 12-step program. The Labang kickoff is the venue where they commit to join the 12-step program, which is twice a week at the start. They are taught to recognize a higher power, so that’s the time Lectio Divina comes in,” Tejero said.

Lectio Divina involves Bible study and sharing.

After one to two months, Phase 2, the intensive intervention, is launched, Tejero said.

“During the launch, we require clients to bring a family member. This will also be the time the family member will commit to submit his family member to the program,” she said.


Then the participants enroll and sign wavers.

“Screening and assessment are done for the severity of their drug addiction by people trained by the Department of Health (DOH). We get their consent to submit themselves to drug testing and health screening. Eventually, this will include HIV, hepatitis, TB and mental health screening.”

While the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders recommends the screening of drug users for infectious diseases like HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), tuberculosis and hepatitis as part of an integrated treatment approach for the drug user, Tejero said they conduct screening for these also to protect their volunteers.

There were an estimated 6,000 injecting drug users (IDU) in Cebu in 2013. IDUs are exposed to blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C due to their use and sharing of needles.

At least 1,050 IDUs in Cebu are HIV positive, according to the Cebu City Health Department. Its Social Hygiene Clinic head, Dr. Ilya Tac-an, said 95 percent of Cebu City’s IDUs also have hepatitis C.

During the intervention proper, the activities added are counseling/therapy, random drug tests and daily psycho-spiritual education, while in aftercare, the added activities are relapse prevention, community activities, and job counseling, training and placement.


Diola described the program of the archdiocese as a “social four-folding,” referring to the business, government, civil society and the church coming together.

He said the Church now played a bigger role in the drug dependents’ recovery than it used to under the Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Councils (Badac).

“The difference is that in Badac, the government initiates the whole thing, then just gives the Church a task, say, counseling. They define everything, so the Church’s potential is not fully tapped. But in Ubas/Labang, the church and state are co-responsible and co-creators,” Diola said.


He said the Church had tremendous resources at its disposal.

In the matter of feeding drug surrenderers attending community-based rehab programs, for instance, Diola said: “The barangay is constrained. They cannot raise funds through solicitations, but the church can. That’s why their partnership is critical.”

Tejero said the provision of food during the rehab sessions was a come-on for some surrenderers.

In the barangays the archdiocese is now assisting, the parishes and the barangays sometimes split the cost of the meals for the surrenderers, while in other cases, the parishes bear the entire cost of the meals, said Dilaab executive director Gladys Ceniza.

She cited the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish in Barangay Kamputhaw, Cebu City where it was Cebu Auxiliary Bishop Dennis Villarojo who approached the barangay captain to set up Labang there, and it is also the bishop who now takes care of feeding the attendees.

At the San Isidro Parish in Talamban, parishioners donated eggs and rice after calls were made at mass for donations for the meals of drug dependents in its community-based recovery program.

What’s in a name?

“Here in Labang, we have daily intervention of four to six hours. But from what we know, others offer intervention just twice a week at one to two hours per session, so how can you make an impact on the lives of these drug addicts?” Diola said. “The term community-based recovery program is being tossed around lightly, if you ask me.”

Ceniza suggested that the motivations of others might just be political, “just so they can say, ‘We have a community-based program in our barangay.’”

In Labang, Tejero said, there are also weekly Ubas meetings, which serve as the venue for the care providers to give feedback on the progress of each surrenderer, so that those who continue to have behavorial and other problems may have their treatment adjusted or cases referred to other parties.


“The motivation of the church is really to accompany in the transformation of the addicts, so it hopes that there will really be a change in the person, in the family, and in the whole community, rather than just to say that ‘we have now been certified as drug-free or -cleared,’” Ceniza said.

For government, the declaration of a barangay as drug-cleared is the measure of success, Diola said.

“But when you examine that, they’re playing games. That’s just on paper. That’s why we’re going around in circles, unless we really do an honest-to-goodness community-based program,” he said.

Diola emphasized that a “community-based” program should really be based in the community, meaning either in the barangay or the parish.

The advantage of a community-based over a center-based program, he said, is that the environment where the drug dependent is rehabilitated is “natural.” After the sessions, they go home. They and their families develop resiliency.

Meeting twice

In Cebu City, where the community-based treatment program is conducted just twice a week and sessions run for one to one and a half hours only, Cebu City Office for Substance Abuse Prevention (Cosap) head Garry Lao said none of the nine surrenderers in Barangays Bonbon and Taptap, where they had piloted their program, had relapsed.

“During every session, there’s a drug test, and we also do counseling. If we did it every day, they would not want to come back because they have work,” he said.

Most of the city’s surrenderers are habal-habal drivers and farmers, he said.

Of the city’s 348 enrollees, only 140 were actively attending the sessions, he said. The program is available in 14 barangays.

“It’s true that sometimes, there are those who go back to using drugs because whenever they go out after the sessions, they return to the community (where they can go back to their old ways),” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s their willingness to change (that will determine if they will stay clean).”

He said the surrenderers were screened using the Alcohol, Smoking and Substance Involvement Screening Test prescribed by the DOH, given individual counseling, and used the 12-step program of Narcotics Anonymous for recovery from the effects of addiction.

Time well spent

Asked how surrenderers could spare four to six hours daily to attend the Labang sessions five days a week, Diola shared what they learned from the first batch of attendees in Subangdaku, many of whom were tricycle drivers and laundrywomen.

“They adjusted their time,” Diola said. “The truth is when they were working, most of the money they earned just went to their addiction. So they were working for nothing. When they made the adjustments, they were making a personal commitment.”

What about those who held 9 to 5 jobs?

“If they had jobs, they lost their jobs because of their addiction,” Ceniza said. “What the drivers did was they decided to drive before or after their session. So it’s really a commitment because the sessions are free. It’s the community that labors to help them recover.”

Tejero said that in some cases, the surrenderers even asked for Saturday or Sunday sessions because of their fear that they might be tempted to use drugs during the weekend.

Ceniza explained the importance of having the sessions regularly: “One of the things they lose in their addiction is the sense of time. So it helps them that they really start at regular hours, and then they really sit in a classroom setting.”

“Some addicts took drugs so they could work longer,” Diola said. “But taking drugs triggers chemicals that release a pleasurable feeling. The first high is the highest high they can ever get. But in the succeeding highs, they want to get the first high. That is why their drug consumption will keep increasing.”

Tejero said some addicts took drugs three to four times a day because they didn’t want to reach a point where the high would fade.

“They live for the next high,” Diola said. “They have lost all sense of time, so the four- to six-hour sessions will restore their sense of time.”


What happens during the sessions is a multisectoral effort.

“It’s not just the church volunteers, but there is also the academe, and not just private schools, but public schools, because we also tapped the school principals in the barangay. For example, the principals in the Kamputhaw Elementary School and the Subangdaku Elementary School send teachers for the Alternative Learning System,” Tejero said.

Surrenderers get lessons in good morals and right conduct, grooming, and basic mathematics, because after drugs affected their brains, they no longer know how to count money and give change.

In areas of psycho-education, teachers and graduate students of the psychology departments of St. Theresa’s College and University of San Carlos help the parishes in Capitol and Talamban, respectively, with lectures and counseling of drug dependents.

“Some of them are part of the team that assesses the condition of the surrenderers. The program is not about prayer meetings only,” Ceniza said.

UP Cebu is offering art for healing in the Sto. Niño Parish in Barangay Pasil because part of the

evidence-based activity for the recovery program is journal writing. They don’t have to use words in their journal. They may draw instead, Tejero said.


Labang is bringing people together in more ways than the archdiocese expected.

“While most of the surrenderers are from the lower-income classes, the people who are reaching out to them from the recovery community are the recovering rich addicts from the rehab centers. It’s the rich who can afford drug rehab in centers. So it’s connecting the rich and the poor,” Diola said.

“One of the 12 steps says, ‘I reach out to others.’ Part of their healing is to help the others recover,” he explained. Labang has several partner-rehab centers.

There are more than 160 parishes in the Archdiocese of Cebu, but so far only 10 parishes have partnered with barangays in the archdiocese’s program for drug dependents.

“We’re dealing with mindsets. The addicts have their own mindset. The police have their own mindsets. The barangay officials have their own mindsets. The priests have their own mindsets,” Diola said of the challenges they faced.

Diola said the Cebu Archdiocesan Program for Drug Dependents (CAPDD) was transforming the Church “because it’s also challenging certain mindsets of the faithful. For example, if you go to the parish, the parish is composed of different groups. Each group has its own balwarte (territory). This is forcing the different groups to come together under the leadership of the parish priest.”

He also said that with the call of Pope Francis to “go to the peripheries,” they were now discovering what periphery means.

They discovered that drugs addicts were not churchgoers after announcements made at mass almost every Sunday to invite drug addicts to join the rehab program yielded no results.

“No one came, because they were not churchgoers. For a long time, Fr. Dennis asked, ‘How do we invite them?’” said Ceniza. “We thought it was that simple, that we would just announce it and they would come, because the surrenderers were so many. Yet no one came because some were not from that place, and of course there’s the stigma. The church is quick to judge sometimes.”

So they embarked on several sessions to invite volunteers first, to help them understand what addiction was and how to reach out to addicts.

“This is what I mean by changing mindsets, that stigma,” Diola said. “The people in the Church now have more empathy.”

Diola said Labang is now an apostolate for recovering addicts because it has become a program of the Archdiocese of Cebu.

“This is a pioneering effort of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines,” said Diola, who gave credit to Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma for putting the Archdiocese of Cebu behind the effort.

He said the Diocese of Novaliches and the Archdiocese of Manila were active in similar efforts.

Last week, Msgr. Antonio Labiao Jr., the previous vicar-general of the Novaliches Diocese in Quezon City, shared how his diocese was helping drug users and their families.

During the National Conversations for Church-led Community-based Rehabilitation Programs (CBRP) and Related Initiatives in Cebu City attended by representatives from 18 dioceses, Labiao said they aimed to establish one CBRP in each of the 12 vicariates in the Novaliches Diocese, which covers a population of 3.1 million people.

Each vicariate is composed of at least five parishes.

The Archdiocese of Cebu is also moving forward with its cause.

“During the CAPDD launch, 33 parishes expressed their desire to start a program right away. But we could not do so at once, because we were still mobilizing our forces. Our target is to activate the Labang in these interested parishes at least,” Tejero said.

Street children

Next year, the Archdiocese of Cebu will also be more involved in the preventive side of the war on drugs, as the center it is building for street children, with the help of Italian bishops, will be completed.

“Many street children are into solvent use (rugby), which is a gateway drug and even in itself, is a very harmful drug already. It shrinks the brain. So we expect that the street children’s solvent usage will be looked into,” Diola said.

Last February, Cebu City Councilor Dave Tumulak said he would propose an ordinance to regulate the sale of roof sealants and other volatile substances, after he learned that minors loitering in downtown Cebu and other areas were now sniffing the sealants as alternatives to rugby solvents.

The archdiocese’s four-storey activity center, to be located in the St. Joseph Parish in Barangay Mabolo, Cebu City, will work with various sectors.

“We hope to feed 300 street children every day who go back to school. Some will be fed in the center, some in their schools. They can also take a bath, have newly washed clothes. There will be medical and dental services. They can learn computers. For those with no birth certificate, we can help them. And it will be volunteer-driven,” Diola said.

It will also be the hub for all the efforts in the archdiocese, coordinating efforts even in the parishes.

“The outreach to street children won’t be limited to that hub. Our indicator of success will be, how many percent of parishes in Metro Cebu and beyond have active outreaches to street children?” Diola said.

(Part 3: Skills give recovering drug users a new start / Who are vulnerable to drug use?)


SunStar website welcomes friendly debate, but comments posted on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of the SunStar management and its affiliates. SunStar reserves the right to delete, reproduce or modify comments posted here without notice. Posts that are inappropriate will automatically be deleted.

Forum rules:

Do not use obscenity. Some words have been banned. Stick to the topic. Do not veer away from the discussion. Be coherent. Do not shout or use CAPITAL LETTERS!

Create your own user feedback survey