The Duterte administration’s campaign against the illegal drug trade and drug abuse apparently assumes that the government can purge the country of its drug problem by killing small-time suspected drug pushers and even users.

President Rodrigo Duterte himself after all told us during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) that the biggest drug lords of this planet involved in the trafficking of drugs in countries like the Philippines are comfortably living off their billions in the fleshpots of Asia and Latin America. The implication is that because the mega suppliers of the components that go into the making of designer drugs and the finished products themselves are beyond the government’s reach, we have to make do with ridding the country of the small fry: the minnows we see almost daily in the evening news programs sprawled lifeless in the mean streets and back alleys of the informal-settler and slum colonies of metro Manila clutching the rusty .38 caliber handguns that, if we’re to believe the Philippine National Police, are their weapons of choice when supposedly resisting arrest.

Although some of them have also been killed, thousands of alleged drug users have also surrendered or have been arrested, with the police promising the country that they will be rehabilitated, presumably by compelling them to go through seminars on the evils of drug use, and what it does to their families, society, and themselves. The police are not saying what happens afterwards, but we can also assume that, once “rehabilitated,” these former drug users can return to their communities to live what pass in this country as “normal” lives.

The same problem of what happens next haunts the killing spree. Duterte the candidate had a solution: it was for the enterprising to go into the funeral parlor business, because, he said, he would kill a hundred thousand or more. Nowadays that option has become less of a joke and more of a grim reality: some businessmen in the funeral parlor industry are complaining that they don’t have enough coffins to meet the demand, and are asking the government for solutions to their supply problems.

But what happens next once the last flip-flop-shod or even barefoot local drug pusher and even user is dispatched is the really important question. Will the drug trade then disappear, and the country morph into a drug-free Eden?

As this column noted last July, that was what the government of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra thought would happen when he launched a two-year campaign in 2003 to rid Thailand of the drug menace. By 2005, nearly 3,000 suspected drug traders and users had been killed by Thai police. But a subsequent investigation after Thaksin was overthrown by a military coup found that more than half of those killed were not involved in the drug trade at all. What’s even more crucial, the impact of the killings on the drug trade was also only temporary. The trade returned with a vengeance, and in exasperation, the chief drug enforcement officer of Thailand proposed the removal of methamphetamine (shabu) from Thailand’s list of dangerous drugs and to legalize it.

Six weeks into the Duterte administration, the more apprehensive sectors of the media have noted that over 800 suspected drug pushers and users — “suspected” is the key word — have so far been killed, and with no end in sight. The prospects are that even more than 3,000, considering how much larger the Philippine population (100 million) is than Thailand’s (68 million), will end up dead while “resisting arrest” within the coming months or even weeks.

And yet the question remains: after the huge cost in human life, the bill of rights and the rule of law, will the country end up drug-free, unlike Thailand? The answer was suggested by Duterte himself when he pointed out that the biggest drug lords are in jurisdictions beyond the Philippine government’s reach. The answer was only recently implied as well when Duterte released lists of local politicians and police officers supposedly involved in the drug trade — who, compared to the fate of small time pushers, were incidentally given the courtesy of being asked to explain, and of being lectured at by the Director General of the Philippine National Police.

The double standard — the rule of the gun for the powerless, and the rule of law for the connected — aside, if the lists are accurate, they suggest a conspiracy reaching into the very heart of local governance and law enforcement, which logic suggests should have been the first administration priority in its anti-illegal drugs campaign.

That that’s not what is happening is akin to the failure to address the reasons why, in the first place, people take drugs, since, absent the market, the trade would die out naturally. In the developed countries of the world, various reasons have been advanced for the persistence of the drug trade as both a social as well as a national security issue. Among such alleged reasons why people take drugs, says the Canadian Centre for Addiction, for example, are stress in the family and the workplace, the influence of other people, peer pressure, and emotional instability.

While some or all of these factors may be behind the continuing demand for illegal drugs that keeps the market intact and fluorishing, in poor countries one of the most critical reasons is the sense of escape and power that drug use can induce among those doomed by circumstances to lives of misery and despair. In some instances, drugs have been the last resort of those in jobs that require long hours of wakefulness, such as bus drivers, while street children, many of whom start young with gateway drug use like solvent- sniffing, use them to stave off the hunger that’s the common experience of too many Filipinos and their families.

This suggests that putting a stop to the drug trade, or at least minimizing it, should be a component of a national reform program that among others would assure the citizenry access to productive, adequately compensated work, drug use being rooted in the psychological and physical boost that drugs provide the weak, the powerless, and even some of those who’re just simply trying to get by.

The Philippine drug problem is the consequence of a lethal mix of social and economic factors as well as the psychological and physical needs that these engender. The “quick fix” promised by the killing of scores, even thousands, of drug pushers and users — and, for that matter, “rehabilitation” efforts that merely emphasize the moral side of avoiding drugs without providing former users an alternative to the uncertainties and vagaries of life in a society in crisis — just won’t solve the problem. Not in the long term, it won’t.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of NEDA.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.