Quite often when one has any discussion on the War on Drugs, people lament that the War is not really being fought by our governments, and that what is needed is a really firm hand and total clamp down on drug dealers. Well, if that is what you want, then you need look no further than the Philippines where the government of President Duterte is doing just that.
As the BBC reports, 90 people have been shot dead this week, with 32 killed in one day alone in a province north of Manila. However, were they the right people? As the report says: “One of those who died was a 17-year-old boy, Kian Delos Santos. Police said he was killed on Tuesday after shooting at them first in Caloocan City. However, security camera footage later emerged showing him being dragged away by two officers, raising serious questions about the circumstances of the shooting.”
The example of Kian Delos Santos is almost certainly not an outlier. While the police go on an extra-judicial killing spree, and adopt a shoot now, ask questions later policy, it is pretty certain that lots of people get caught in the crossfire. It is for this reason that the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila made a statement that was read out in all churches this Sunday past, in which he laments the killing of “the helpless”. The Cardinal surely knows that of which he speaks. In his statement the Cardinal also makes it clear that while the Church is opposed to drug-taking and the drug trade, nevertheless the way the government is approaching the problem is the wrong one.
From a moral perspective, no end justifies the means, and it cannot possibly be right to break the law (both moral and civil) in order to uphold the law. That is contradictory. Moreover, in fighting the drug gangs using the methods that drug gangs use, namely brute force, the government descends to their level, and also runs the risk of losing the contest. What will happen then? The government will be taken over by a drug cartel, as has happened elsewhere, and the Philippines will become yet another narco-state.
The tragic situation in the Philippines should remind us all that in dealing with drugs coercion is not the only way forward: indeed the Cardinal’s statement implies that much, talking as it does of the need for a “multi-sectoral” dialogue. He also mentions the various programmes that are run by the Church to help people who are addicts. This is surely one way forward. Drug addiction is primarily a medical and social problem, and one needs to concentrate efforts (which can be led by the Church, but by others too) to help addicts reclaim their lives. In addiction we need to educate people to help them avoid addiction in the first place, and here the Church can certainly help, as such an education is primarily a moral task. And yes, the reason why so many people have become addicted to drugs is because of the moral vacuum in our society (but that is the subject of another article.)
The experience of the Philippines – and I am convinced that Duterte’s approach is making things worse not better – should lead us to reappraise our own less violent approach to the War on Drugs. In the UK the police do not shoot to kill, thank God, but we do expend a lot of time, energy and resources, on trying to disrupt the flow of drugs into the country, without much success. As Cardinal Tagle’s statement shows us, we need to have a national conversation about a new and more effective approach to helping those whose lives are ruined by drugs. And at the heart of that conversation needs to be the idea of decriminalization. President Duterte has, paradoxically, taught us all a lesson: the War on Drugs isn’t working. Time to try something else.