International drug policy advocates expressed hope that the new President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., will adopt a more humane approach to dealing with the country’s narcotics problem. Following six years of violent drug war under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos’ more passive stance is a welcome change that may allow a more fruitful discussion of the matter. During the 27th Harm Reduction International Conference 2023 (HR23), which took place from April 16 to April 19, Naomi Burke-Shyne, executive director of Harm Reduction International (HRI), stated that “we have slightly higher hopes on Marcos. At least we haven’t seen an aggressive continuation of the Duterte regime’s drug war, so maybe there’s hope and that there’s more engagement to be done.” Shyne, who is also the conference chair, added that while the Philippines still has a long way to go, the relative decrease in violence allows for international organizations like HRI and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to communicate and offer aid. While the violence under Duterte was so severe that it was difficult to enter the country to help, an international coalition led by HRI and UNHRC was able to contact local partners to apply pressure to the Philippine government. However, despite these efforts, the situation remains harrowing, with reports estimating that between 12,000 and 30,000 died as a result of Duterte’s drug war. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, the current chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), described the Philippines’ behaviour as “a total breach of international law with the arbitrary executions of small-scale drug users” during Duterte’s tenure. Additionally, she noted that the revival of the death penalty was brought up in Congress during Duterte’s reign, which is incredibly unsettling, given that it was previously prohibited. However, now that Marcos has taken over, there may be a chance for peace. It is crucial for the Philippines to acknowledge that drug use is a reality, and the state has a responsibility to ensure that it happens within a framework focused on people’s health and well-being. Philippine government representative RJ Echeverri announced at the conference that Marcos had adopted a “demand reduction” drug policy, with an emphasis on discussion and cooperation with organizations that can help. The government wants to work towards harm reduction policies, rather than punitive ones. The Marcos administration also intends to learn from other Southeast Asian countries’ experiences to better formulate a strategy to combat the drug problem. At HR23, held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre under the theme “Strength in Solidarity,” more than 1,200 health workers, activists, researchers, policymakers, and civil society organizations from over 80 countries gathered. The event emphasized working together as a global movement to compel governments to adopt dignified drug policies. All countries must end criminalising and imprisoning people who use drugs, according to Clark. Through regulation based on harm reduction principles, drug use can be approached in a safe, useful, and sustainable manner. Australia, which has been one of the first countries to adopt the harm reduction approach, presented its best practices, such as the medically supervised injection rooms in eastern Melbourne for persons who use drugs. As a firm advocate of cannabis’s legalisation, I believe that Marcos’ approach is commendable but ultimately not enough. The Philippines should fully legalise cannabis and other drugs, regulate them, and provide harm reduction policies instead of pursuing a war on drugs that has only resulted in increased violence and bloodshed.
As a disclaimer, the opinions expressed in this article don’t reflect those of High Thailand.