Drugs, Wars, and Mental Health

President Rodrigo Duterte has admitted that 6 months is not enough to solve the drug problem, that “we cannot control it.” The Duterte regime’s “War on Drugs” is on-the-roll as a response to this “crime problem”.

But the crime problem perspective on illegal drugs ends in a stalemate. Suppliers retreat for the time being as crackdown intensifies and the corpses of drug addicts pile up. But illegal drug makers and collaborators remain present. Border security always has weak spots. And drug organizations can always gain access to government bureaucracy, technology, and arms.

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Crimes are the result of drug addiction; not its root. To treat cancer, one must remove its root cause. A disease is not cured by merely treating its symptoms.
The most important question is this: Why do people use illegal drugs?
In History, there are wars involving illegal drugs. These historical “drug wars” include the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 in China. The drug is opium, a byproduct of poppy (Papaver somniferum).

As a medicine, opium is a pain reliever. But the recreational use, opium smoking, is more popular. Opium gives addicting euphoria. Fear and anxiety disappears, replaced by a great sense of freedom and happiness. But dysphoria also happens as the user’s consciousness and judgment become clouded. The same effects are also true for today’s shabu.

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The British trade with the Chinese, especially in silk, tea, and porcelain, was too costly since these were paid in silver. To offset their losses, the British smuggled opium to China. There was a great demand for opium since the Manchu dynasty banned it.

Many Chinese became addicted to the illegal drug as a coping mechanism for the pain, anxiety, hunger, and other problems that affected the individual during that troubled period of China’s history. This period later became known as China’s “Century of Humiliation” (1839-1942).

Under Commissioner Lin Tse-hsü, tons of opium were confiscated and dumped into the sea. Sellers were apprehended and opium implements destroyed. These outraged the British which resulted in the First Opium War of 1839-1842.

 Lin’s policy did not include mass arrests nor executions of opium addicts. 

Let us go back to the question: Why do people use illegal drugs? 
Answer: to escape the pain, anxiety, and the problems of life.
Drug addicts steal or kill for money to sustain their momentary piece of heaven. They rape or kill in a mentally altered state of omnipotence. A great sense of relief and happiness are the positive effects. Self-harm and crimes are the negative effects.
In the light of these, we must try to see drug addicts as victims of social and economic insecurity; individuals suffering from mental health issues. These people take illegal drugs to cope with their problems; to cope with life.
Drug addiction is a mental health problem rooted in social and economic insecurity. Drug addiction is a destructive form of self-medication. It harms the user and other people.

Duterte’s drug war owes its “popular approval” to the success of his rhetoric of dehumanization. By branding drug addicts as the scum of society, people become dismissive of the brutality and absurdity of death by nanlaban—remember Kian.

How should we respond?

First, recognize the humanity of drug addicts. Some of these people can cook the best adobo, crack the funniest jokes, are artists, singers, breadwinners. To commit wrongs is human; to make things right is also human. To begin again after falling is the lesson from Adam and Eve. We must provide restorative justice.
Second, recognize that drug addiction is a mental health problem. Any form of addiction is a silent cry for help like overeating, alcoholism, and game addiction. We must respond in terms of rehabilitative, medical intervention.

Third, recognize that drug addiction is rooted in social and economic insecurity. An abused daughter or an unemployed father can turn to drug use to cope up with depression without psycho-social intervention. We need to address the needs of the socially and economically insecure.

Sadly, illegal drug supply and demand will remain.

As long as the human soul suffers the pain of existence, illegal drugs will remain as a coping mechanism. And like the British of the Opium Wars, there will always be those who aim to profit from human suffering.

Image: “Inakup, Arekup” by Campaigns & Grey

Dom writes for pay by day and writes for passion by night. He is a Japan major at the University of the Philippines. He’s fond of ramen and anime but not of nice people.


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