Drug war critics urge priority on rehab and harm-reduction to curb drug abuse

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Tanauan drug suspects surrender to authorities. (File photo)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Critics of the war on drugs urged President Rodrigo Duterte to declare illegal drug use a public health issue, instead of a criminal one, for it to succeed.

"Harm-reduction" approaches, rather than punitive measures, resulted in positive outcomes and cost efficiency in solving the problem of drug abuse, said Senator Risa Hontiveros on Monday. Hontiveros gave the keynote speech at an anti-drug war forum. She cited a study that showed investment in harm-reduction programs boosted savings in health care.

"For every $1 invested in harm reduction [programs], over $4 accrue in short-term health care cost savings," said Hontiveros, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Demography.  "Harm reduction is necessary for an effective drug policy," she added.

"We should be opening community-based, out-patient rehabilitation programs, drop-in centers...We should be conducting harm-reduction capacity building sessions for our local governments, health officers, and NGOs. We should be mainstreaming the public health approach to this anti-drug campaign. We should be offering hope to the reportedly three million drug dependents and their families," said Hontiveros.

DOH rehab centers proposed

In line with harm-reduction proposals, the Department of Health (DOH) also presented at the forum its plan to build four "mega rehab centers" across the Philippines. As congress deliberates on the national budget, the DOH is requesting three billion pesos for drug rehabilitation programs. These will include training and hiring doctors, building halfway homes and rehab centers.

"Community-based rehab is our focus because according to the studies, more than 96% [of the cases] will be referred to the community," said Dr. Maria Vilma Diez, DOH director for the Dangerous Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program at the forum.

The four mega rehab centers will be located in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Carmen in Bohol, Jamindan in Capiz, and in the province of Sarangani. The first to be built is the one in Nueva Ecija, which will have 2,500 beds.

Indonesian human rights lawyer Ricky Gunawan emphasized that drug use and drug addiction were medical issues, not criminal ones. "We don't arrest people with diabetes. We don't arrest people with cancer, so we don't arrest people with drug addiction. If they have a drug addiction then provide treatment; that's how we deal with the drug problem," he said.

Futility of the war on drugs

Punitive measures against drug offenders have failed to lower the number of drug-related crimes in Indonesia, Gunawan said. Southeast Asia's most populous country reinstituted the death penalty and has executed dozens of convicted drug offenders since 2013 after a four-year moratorium. Filipina Mary Jane Veloso, is one of those on Indonesia's death row after being convicted for smuggling heroin into the country.

"I'm worried about the Philippines moving towards this militarization approach we've seen," Gunawan told CNN on the sidelines of the forum.

More than 3,000 people have been killed in the war on drugs since President Duterte assumed office on July 1. He marks his 100th day in office on Wednesday.

State funding should go to medical and psychological support aimed at rehabilitation instead of criminal justice  measures "because that's where this money should go into; where it's needed the most," Gunawan said.

Providing this kind of support was necessary since the issue of illegal drugs is an offshoot of socio-economic problems, said drug prevention policy adviser Gloria Lai of Australia.

"We see the influence of the sustainable development goals," said Lai at the forum. "That helps us see the problems from multiple perspectives; looking at the roots of drug-related problems and addressing the negative consequences in relation to poverty, health and definitely gender specific issues," Lai said.