One Size Fits All?


Actor Raul Mendez as Cesar Gaviria, former president of Colombia in the popular Netflix TV series, Narcos.

There is too much noise and misunderstanding about the drug war, and the press has made it worse instead of clarifying the many different assumptions. People and politicians are all too willing to jump on the bandwagon, for whatever reason or agenda, and ride this  emotional issue.

As controversial as the war on drugs has been, there is no disagreement that a serious drug problem exists in the Philippines. Even the Church has agreed it is a problem and that something has to be done. There is some debate on whether the real number of drug addicts is 1.8mm or 3 million, but that is a sideshow with no real import. Either way it is a problem. To those who object that Duterte is fudging the number and exaggerating for the purpose of rationalizing, one need only ask if Duterte’s policies or public support would be any different with either number. I think not. Policy does not really change drastically whether drug addicts are 2%, or in fact 3% of the population.That’s why it’s a sideshow, a fringe argument.

What people are arguing about, in fact the core of the controversy, is the conduct of the war, the methods used, and the body count. This argument is unfortunately clouded by a multitude of differing assumptions on either side. One side insists the body count is 7,000 dead, while the other side chooses to look at the official police figures which are closer to 2,500. There is also no agreement on the term “EJK”, or whether the deaths are “state-sanctioned”. (What happened to the national murder statistic; is everything now being lumped into a 7,000 “EJK” number?) There is no agreement on whether the drug cartels themselves are doing the killings, or whether rogue cops are acting as masked vigilantes. Depending on who or what you read, you can even believe that users are being killed along with pushers, that there are quotas, or there is a cull list.

Perhaps an attempt to simplify and whittle down the main sides can be done as follows: a “hardline” stance that includes aggressive police effort vs. a “softer” approach that includes decriminalization. These sides can then serve as polar guides and we can all locate ourselves at the poles or along the spectrum.

The former president of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, judging by his op-ed piece is for a softer approach. Relatively, the governments of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are for a harder approach i.e. no decriminalization and the death penalty for drug traffickers. These nations believe that a country should determine for itself what is the correct approach that best suits its unique needs and circumstances.

Once we have agreed there is a problem and have identified the possible approaches, the other debate which should be happening is “how do we define success in the drug war”? Does one million surrenders spell success? How many buy-bust operations and arrests? How many rehabilitated? Does lowering in all other crimes count as one of the factors in determining success? As any manager would tell you, the goals have to be explicit and the results have to be measurable.

This definition of what would constitute a “win”, should also take into consideration, that like poverty, zero drugs is an impossible dream. So what constitutes an acceptable level? That should be part of the measures in determining success.

These are the things that people should bear in mind when discussing the issue. As with all controversial matters, the complexities sometimes get the better of us. An understanding of each other’s assumptions would contribute greatly. Perhaps we should remember that “one size fits all” hardly ever works.


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