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What The Philippines' War On Drugs Can Teach Australia

When atrocities occur, there is a need to reflect on our own backyard.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippines Government of President Rodrigo Duterte has, over recent months, conducted a campaign of extra-judicial mass killings. The target of this legalized murder is a group of people least empowered to speak out against this slaughter; people who use illicit drugs.

As many as an estimated three thousand people have been killed at the hands of police and vigilante squads . When elected as Philippines President in June, Duterte openly promoted and encouraged his citizens to 'kill a drug dealer' telling them that 'I will give you a medal'.

It's a political smoke screen to garner populist support through the 'war on drugs'.

Apart from the appalling human-rights abuses, Duterte's campaign will lead to several extremely dangerous outcomes. Firstly, it will lead to a number of people being killed under the cover of an accusation of involvement with drugs. There is no evidentiary or judicial process in these killings, just an accusation and then summary execution. Old scores can be settled with Presidential approval.

Secondly, there will be a market vacuum for new drug dealers. These dealers will be more violent and ruthless than those they followed. Having learnt that the government will use extreme force to try and destroy their drug market, the new dealers will be better equipped with bigger and better weapons to protect their investment. Just look at Mexico.

Thirdly, the local drug market will seek offshore supply chains, opening up new trafficking routes, such as ice and heroin imported from China and other parts of South East Asia. Finally, the Filipino jail system, now experiencing mass incarceration rates, will become an incubation hot-spot for HIV where drugs are injected with shared needles, potentially leading to a public health disaster in the Philippines.

Often when atrocities occur, such as that which is happening now in the Philippines, there is a need to reflect on our own backyard. Historically, Australia's policies have been measured, considered and balanced within a framework of health, human rights and harm minimization. We have enjoyed success, especially in preventing an HIV epidemic.

However, when you peel away the layers and look more closely at the results over recent years, the outcomes are less flattering. In fact, on several levels we are failing badly. We have fallen behind the rest of the world in adopting many evidence-based initiatives. We have experienced an evidence-based policy-free zone for far too long. Programs such as supervised injecting rooms, pill testing, needle exchanges in prisons and heroin prescribing are badly needed to reduce the toll from illicit drugs.

Another concern with the local drug trade is increased levels of violence, especially the growing gun culture. The use of firearms linked to the drug market is escalating, crimes involving guns has doubled in the past five years in Victoria. Make no mistake, those that are seeking to protect their investment in the illicit drug market will stop at nothing. History dictates that an uncontrolled and unregulated drug market is a constant battlefield and the whole community is at risk.

Despite this knowledge, and statements such as 'we can't arrest our way out of the drug issue', governments continue to introduce tougher laws and police persist with mass arrest operations such as those witnessed at the recent Listen Out Festival.

Governments are reluctant to think outside a conservative policy 'formula' for illicit drugs; that is, demonize drug users, heavily resource police and increase penalties. None of these approaches offer success, instead it punishes people for their rest of lives in a bid to claim some moral high ground victory.

It's time to start a 'new conversation' about illicit drugs. A new policy narrative is needed. Let's not fall into the trap of continuing to believe that we can create a 'drug free' world. Drug use is, and always will be, a significant part of many people's lives and we need policy approaches that reflect this and are based on evidence.

Until we have an open and honest conversation about the many reasons why people use drugs we won't address the risks and harms that illicit drugs pose. We should be taking a pragmatic, evidence-informed approach. Using the tired old rhetoric that reinforces stereotypes about 'junkie' drug users only creates further stigma, discrimination and alienation for some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

We can do better than that.


From the 10th to 16th October a global campaign to raise awareness of the current situation in the Philippines will commence. The Global Week of Action will include peaceful demonstrations at Philippine Embassies around the world. More details can be found at:

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