IN HIS first State of the Nation Address (Sona) among the memorable lines that President Rodrigo Duterte said was, “human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country - your country and my country” - this, and the many other statements that referred to illegal drugs.
Michael Moore, the American documentary filmmaker and author known for his critique of the current state of American politics, economics and culture, featured dealing with drug addiction in his production “Where to Invade Next”, a documentary premised on the idea of identifying and “stealing great ideas” of other countries that could be brought back to the United States--hence the notion of invasion, but minus the violence that it usually entails.
The segment on Portugal focused on its unorthodox approach to a massive problem with illegal drugs. Moore interviewed Portuguese policemen, one of whom had this to say about fighting drugs: “human dignity is the backbone of our society. And all laws have to be based on respecting and following that principle. And those principles are instilled in us, even in our training as policemen.”
Channel One News reported in a feature that in the 1980s, one in every one hundred Portuguese was a heroin user and it was not uncommon for heroin users to die in the streets. Then in 2001 after ferociously waging a war on drugs for two decades the country decriminalized personal possession and use in small amounts--it did not legalize drugs but it shifted the mindset about drug use as a health problem rather than a criminal problem.
Those caught possessing in excess of the set amounts (under three grams for marijuana, below a gram for heroin, and less than two grams for cocaine), according to Lisbon Police Commissioner Nelson Ribeiro in the Channel One News feature, were fined and sent to rehabilitation. The Portuguese government continued to go after drug suppliers but only 10 percent of its resources went to law enforcement, while 90 percent was for treatment and rehabilitation.
The news segment claimed that over time drug-caused deaths went down by 80 percent, the number of heroin addicts was reduced by 50 percent, and very few went to prison because of drug abuse.
The statements of the Portuguese police in the Moore documentary resonated with me, in part because it connected with the statement of President Duterte on human dignity.
But more importantly because it indicated other less violent and more effective approaches to drug abuse, and one which in particular was underpinned by a concern for human dignity, which one is hard pressed to find in the increasing number people killed in cold blood due to drugs.
Using police data journalists Vino Lucero and Malou Mangahas estimated that the number of people killed thus far averaged 10 persons a day in the first three weeks of the new administration compared to an average of about one person killed every 10 days during the 78-month period of January 2010 to June 2016.
What has turned out to be a bloody war on drugs in the early days of the Duterte administration has elicited divided reactions from key sectors of society.
Personages associated with the Catholic Church and other civil society leaders have spoken up against what has become a daily body count. But social media discourse continues to be dominated by outright and tacit endorsements, and compounded by deliberate silence about the issue, perhaps mirroring what Fr. Amado Picardal, CSsR described as the absence of a “moral outcry”.
It has come to a point where the divisions seem to have boiled down to a simplistic one: being critical of drug-related killings means one tolerates criminality and is out of touch of the problems of the country, and emanates from being anti-Duterte. A corollary to the above conclusion is the charge that all who are supportive of addressing criminality and the Duterte administration are also accommodating towards extra-judicial killings.
These views, which have only stoked the divisions spawned by the May 2016 elections campaign, are by no means representative of those who struggle to meaningfully respond to the challenges of the times.
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