Criminalising Illness: The War on Drugs

Sophie-Jo Gavin

The term ‘war on drugs’ denotes a governmental agenda targeting the eradication of drug use; generally labelled by officials as being for the greater good, the efficacy and morality of anti-drug campaigns in practice is debatable as they often carry a dark undercurrent, ranging from institutional racism, as in the United States, to brazen brutality, exemplified by the approach in the Philippines. Drawing comparisons with countries which employ less severe drug policies exposes the degree to which these short-sighted and often oppressive campaigns misfire in their treatment of drug addiction.


Image credits: Panay News

Rodrigo Duterte rose through the ranks of the Philippine government on a platform which promised to restore peace and stability to the country. While mayor of Davao City, Duterte enlisted an armed vigilante group, known as the Davao Death Squad, to kill anyone deemed an undesirable member of society, encompassing not only drug dealers and criminals, but political opponents and outspoken journalists. Duterte became President of the Philippines in May 2016, campaigning with ruthless policies including the promise to execute 100,000 more criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay.

Over 5,000 people, mostly from poor and marginalised backgrounds, have died in police operations in what Duterte termed his ‘war on drugs’, however it is thought that up to 22,000 more deaths are linked; it is impossible to know for certain the number of lives lost due to the surreptitious nature of the government’s techniques, for example releasing dangerous criminals with the knowledge of who informed on them. Thousands of children have been orphaned in the impoverished urban areas targeted by police raids, and for victims of addiction in the Philippines, the consequences of relapse are severe: one mistake can place them in the firing line of the police force.


‘Protesters and residents hold lighted candles and placards at the wake of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student, who was among the people shot dead … in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs’; Image credits: Dondi Tawatao / Reuters

While there have been calls for investigations into the killings by several groups including Amnesty International, Duterte’s government remains unscathed. He has admitted to planting evidence, as well as openly taking responsibility for a number of extrajudicial killings and comparing his campaign to the Holocaust:

“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million drug addicts […] I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Despite his brazen confessions and the brutality of his governance, Duterte continues to enjoy tremendous political success, winning each re-election by landslides and attaining approval ratings of as high as 91%. Throughout his governmental career Duterte has exploited fear with brute force and threats to opponents, meaning his bloody fight against drug users can continue with the support of a fearful and vulnerable public. Although he purports to have the protection of the Philippine public at the forefront of his policies, the government’s gross abuse of human rights and total dehumanisation of those struggling with addiction serve to entirely undermine this contention.


‘Jairo Andres Lerma Payan (C) of New York City and founder of New York Afro Latinos Immigration Service holds a sign during a rally June 17, 2013, at the Lafayette Park in Washington, DC’; Image credits: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The war on drugs in the United States takes a perhaps less flagrantly brutal but arguably more insidious form. Its racist foundations can be traced back to the late nineteenth century when previously lax attitudes to narcotics began to shift due to racial stigmas, and the government implemented laws banning drugs linked to particular races: anti-opium, -cocaine, and -marijuana laws were directed at Chinese, black, and Mexican people respectively. These racist sentiments have continued to pervade the war on drugs since its official inception in 1971 by President Richard Nixon; supposedly intended to ensure safety from “public enemy number one”, drug abuse, evidence suggests that the war on drugs has in fact been used as a method for specifically targeting marginalised groups of society. John Ehrlichman, an aide to the Nixon presidential campaign, later revealed that its focus on drugs was a tactic against its two main enemies, the anti-war left and black people:

“By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Studies have shown that the chance of a mandatory minimum sentence is twice as high for blacks than whites charged with the same drug offense; moreover, the disparity established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 between the forms of cocaine was founded inherently in racism, as powder cocaine, associated with the white middle class, carried considerably more lenient sentences than crack cocaine for which black and Latino communities were more often convicted. These policies have resulted in black and Hispanic people constituting a disproportionately large percentage of the U.S. prison population, 33% and 23% respectively in 2016, despite comprising only 12% and 16% of the overall population.

The implementation of the campaign’s reactionary policies is furthermore responsible for severe health risks in the U.S.; despite unanimous reports revealing the efficacy of syringe access programmes in reducing the risk of HIV transmission with no evidence of increasing drug use, a federal ban on government-funded syringe access programmes was instituted in 1988, to the great detriment of drug users nationwide. While the Obama administration lifted the ban in 2009 following calls from public health officials, it was subsequently reinstated in 2011; the government’s actions in this matter serve to elucidate the priority given by its short-sighted agenda to the imprisonment of those most at risk over public health.

The issue of illicit drug use was also prevalent in Portugal in the late twentieth century, and approached virtually antithetically to the United States; following the decriminalisation of the use of all drugs in 2001 the country has seen dramatic improvements and serves as an example of the benefits of a government policy that treats addiction as an illness rather than a crime. Drug use in older teens fell by 6% in the first 5 years, heroin overdoses were halved, and new HIV infections in drug users fell by 17%.

Anti-drug campaigns globally lack compassion for victims of addiction and substance abuse, for whom the preference for punishment over rehabilitation is extremely detrimental: since 1971 the U.S. prison population has expanded by more than 900% while the rate of drug use has remained unchanged, and the areas specifically target by the Philippine government are becoming increasingly impoverished with each extrajudicial killing. Furthermore, policies such as zero-tolerance and mandatory sentencing generally extend only to the poor and marginalised, who receive draconian punishments alongside the daily use of drugs by the privileged in an insidious system of class-based injustice. The war on drugs operates under the guise of public protection, however this assertion can no longer be tolerated when vast proportions of this public are direct victims of both a ruthless illness and a governmentally-legislated persecution.

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