The effects of President Duterte’s war on drugs will be catastrophic

President Duterte: 'Please accept, Your Holiness, the assurances of my highest esteem and respect' (AP)

Those who want to see the so-called “war on drugs” fought with greater vigour might like to turn their attention to the Philippines at present.

There President Duterte is doing exactly that – fighting the war on drugs with all means available. The trouble is that many of the means he is using are illegal. The Philippines are becoming, as one archbishop puts it, a “killing field”.

Does it matter when a government ignores due process and the rule of law, and starts to take out drug dealers and drug users by all means available, including motorbike-riding death squads? Those who think this way often quote the example of “the Iron Prefect” Ceasare Mori, the man appointed by Mussolini to govern Sicily in the 1920s, who supposedly crushed the mafia, at least for a time, using all available means.

But in fact when governments abandon due process and the rule of law, the two things they are supposed to uphold more than anything else, the effects in the long term will be catastrophic.

First of all, there is the moral problem. A government that acts illegally is self-contradictory. It makes laws, supposedly enforces laws, but at the same time breaks them. Breaking one set of laws will usually lead to a contempt for all laws.

Eventually the government will become not a proper government but a criminal conspiracy, for it will have descended to the level of the people it is fighting. This is in effect what has happened in Mexico, where, according to research, the government is now just the agent of one drug cartel fighting other cartels.

The second concern is practical. The drugs trade is to be deplored for several reasons, not least because it brings misery to millions of addicts, but also because it represents a state within the state, a parallel jurisdiction, based not on law as the arbiter of disputes, but on brute force. The drugs trade is inherently violent because it is illegal. The way to tame it is to legalise it.

The government of the Philippines, in taking on the criminals, using the same methods of the criminals, risks the worst of all outcomes: fighting the war on drugs and losing it. When that happens the criminals take over the government.

But when the drugs trade is legalised, taxed and regulated (like the alcohol and tobacco trades) then the criminals lose control of their fiefdom and are put out of business. Moreover, when drugs become legal, addicts can be recognised for what they really are: sick people needing medical help, rather than criminals.

At present it should be acknowledged by all that the war on drugs has cost thousands of lives and has nowhere succeeded. Mr Duterte is going down a path that has had disastrous consequences for other countries. One must hope he abandons his reckless policies before more harm is done. There are better ways of dealing with the scourge of drugs.