Government News Analysis

Robredo’s “Portuppines” dream

Leni Robredo on Portugal's Drug Policy

Decriminalise – a gateway term for legalise – drug use in the Philippines. As far as we can judge, that’s the flagship policy of the Liberal Party (LP) as espoused by its leader, Vice President Leni Robredo (photo). In other words, should the LP ever attain power again, one of the first things it would do is pass legislation that would make the use and sale of narcotics – if not wholly legitimate – effectively a non-offence. Something like littering; jaywalking.

Under that regimen, anyone caught with a sachet or two of crystal meth would likely get punished by having to do community service – washing down a couple of dumpsters; something like that.

Somewhere kicking around the Senate there’s actually a Bill that seeks to authorise courts to require community service in lieu of detention. That proposal, introduced in 2013 and still pending in committee, would be just the ticket for dealing with the armed thugs who sell drugs to kids in Philippine inner-city barangays. That’ll really make them sit up and pay attention.

Robredo, who parrots progressive thought with what to us sounds like the understanding of a parrot, cites Portugal as the benchmark for future drug policy in her perfect version of the Philippines. For her, Portugal – the country that operated one of the worst colonial systems in the history of the world; which plundered Brazil of its sugar and its gold with the help of armies of slaves it had brought from Africa – holds the answer for what she describes as a “peaceful and orderly” system for solving the archipelago’s drug problems.

We don’t know if she’s ever been to Portugal, though given the amount of time she spends on trips abroad, she may well have. What we are fairly sure of though, is that beyond delivering the usual nebulous-populist sound bites on the subject, she’s never addressed the ramifications of such a programme for her country.

To understand where Robredo’s coming from on this issue, you need to understand where she’s coming from in terms of political culture. Robredo’s a Europhile; she practically swoons at the mention of anything Euro-Lib. In fact, institutional liberalism Europa-style seems to be her drug of choice.

Europe, then – the home of Liberal one-world-order institutions, the European Union (EU); the United Nations, the International Criminal Court; the European Court of Human Rights – is where her heart is. And so it’s where her head is also. With Robredo there seems to be no clear distinction between the two. Rational thought and deep analysis don’t seemed to have played a big part in her appraisal of issue.

Flip-flops, ‘awareness ribbons’, ridiculous catch-phrases, photo-ops, touchy-feely symbols and images – are all geared to project her as a simple woman seeking a simple life for her people. Mahatma Gandhi, however, she’s not; their lifestyles couldn’t be more different.

And so to the issue. First, here’s what she told an “Academic Forum on Tsinelas (meaning simple footwear; recognisably, flip-flops) held at the Liberal-loving University of the Philippines (UP) in Los Baños on 21 April: “Portugal found a system to combat drugs that was peaceful and orderly. They reformed their laws; they strengthened rehabilitation [facilities]; they fixed their institutions responsible for rehabilitating. They were triumphant”.

Portugal, of course, is run by the progressive Left – specifically, the Liberal ideologues of the Social Democratic Party – so it’s not surprising that Robredo would be an easy convert to its policies, whatever they are. However, the Portuguese drug-model comes at a price and one the Philippines is in no position to pay – whether financially or logistically.

Consequently, we have yet to hear how a Robredo-run Philippines would fund and effectively operate a Portuguese-style national drug programme. Let’s explain the nature of the problem.

Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001. By 2005 it had the highest HIV infection rate of anywhere in Western Europe. Ok, maybe they were teething problems. Certainly, by 2009, newly diagnosed cases of HIV had fallen – but to 13.4 cases per million, still way above the European average of 2.85 cases per million.

However, for the Philippines with a population more than 10 times that of Portugal – 105,368,800 against 10,318,600 – and a drugs-use population more than four times greater, the costs consequences of that trend repeating across the archipelago are horrific.

And whether coincidental or not, homicide rates from 2001 to 2006 in Portugal ballooned by 40% – and that’s one area where the Philippines doesn’t need to see an uptick.

Leaving that aside though, here’s what would be involved under a Portuguese system. Mandatory medical treatment would be afforded to users of any drug. This, if the Portuguese model is to be followed, would involve individual counselling by teams of government sociologists and social workers who determine whether there should be referral to drug-treatment centres.

On top of that, there would be ‘technical-support teams’ to develop appropriate rehabilitative approaches for each case based on treatment. None of these are optional extras; psychosocial and pharmacological services are at the core of Portugal’s proclaimed panacea.

Furthermore, Portugal presently has state-run rehab units in every province (or administrative region) bar about four – in other words it has around 14 of them. The Philippines has 81 provinces. In 2016, there were 50 such facilities (though far more modest) across the Philippines; around 20 of them run by the Department of Health (DOH). This would mean that in an ideal world – like Portugal apparently – a further 31 would be needed to serve the entire archipelago.

But even the 50 already in place are hopelessly inadequate as far as handling the 658,000 plus individuals who one year ago had already declared themselves to be drug users. As for providing each of these individuals with sociologists, social workers and technical-support teams; the bill for that would be staggering. Furthermore, it would have to come from the DOH budget – a budget that’s stretched at the best of times.

Clearly, to make the programme effective – rather than just something for the Liberals to add to their credentials as progressivist – an army of new staff would need to be recruited and trained to the Portuguese standard. The bill for the ongoing costs from all that would also be picked up by the DOH.

Admittedly, because under the Portuguese system there’s no crime as such in most drug-possession cases – and thus no custodial sentencing – the Philippine jail population would dramatically decrease. But in reality all that would do is drop prison inmate numbers in inverse proportion to the rise in the number of drug-rehab inpatients.

Furthermore, if the Portuguese blueprint is used, the big cost will come in the form of medication. Free medication, under Portugal’s prescription. This means dispensing substitute drugs – drugs such as methadone, buprenorphine and buprenorphine/naloxone. These are not cheap drugs and doctors would also need to be on hand to prescribe them. And the doctors would be unlikely to be giving their services for free either.

Moreover, given the amount of drug users in the Philippines, large stocks of these would have to be carried by the rehabs. Security around their dispensaries and storerooms would need to be extremely tight – ready stocks of drugs on this scale would be to drug thieves what the sex pheromones of musk deer are at rutting time.

And let’s face it, the Philippines has a problem keeping its prisons secure – breakouts are not exactly a blue-moon event – what hope would it have of preventing break-ins at its rehabs? The manpower and round-the-clock surveillance bill, alone, for a project of this size would be astronomical.

In other words, it would be an extremely expensive policy to implement and enforce. You might wonder, then, how Portugal manages to pay for all that, even though its numbers are a fraction of those of the Philippines.

Well, Portugal doesn’t actually fully fund its drugs programme; it has help in that via its membership of the EU. As this project got underway, Portugal was in the grip of a seething financial crisis. It became the “P” in “PIGS” – along with Ireland, Greece and Spain; none of which were able to refinance their government debt or bail-out their debt-ridden banks. In 2010, 22.4% of under-25s in Portugal were jobless. Lisbon certainly didn’t have money lying around for something like this.

And then there’s that loose facile assumption that concludes that if a thing works in one place it must automatically work everywhere else. We also understand that Liberals believe they have all the solutions for everything and everyone everywhere. But the fact is neither of these is true.

And then there’s that other minor matter – the drug criminals. What does Robredo think, that they’ll simply pack their bags and move out of the Philippines when she puts in place her Portugal policy. Of course they won’t – the rehab pharmacies will beckon them like the banks beckoned Dillinger. They won’t be moving out – and certainly not with lax laws to barely bother their salesman. They’ll be expanding and harvesting like never before.

And then, as that takes its toll on society once more, law enforcement will again be called up to try and deal with it. Which is precisely what President Rodrigo Duterte has been doing for the past year. He’s been dealing with a problem that though neglect and the closing of one eye by politicians of all colours, though most noticeably by those in Liberal yellow, has plunged Philippine society into a violent pit of social despair.

And while the criticism he gets for that is loud and raucous, it’s nothing to the cacophony of silence from a Liberal Party that stood by for six years and allowed this problem to fester beneath a carpet where it had been swept.

But, of course, none of that is even vaguely alluded to by Robredo and her progressive chums. Portugal is the flavour of the moment – it’s a Liberal thing; it’s European, it must be good. And so the reasoning goes – if it’s damaging to Duterte, if it rooted in human rights, if the students from UP and progressives from every other bit of the woodwork like it, then what are we waiting for?

In all this, however, we have yet to hear from the political wing of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines – the ecclesiastical authority of the country’s Roman Catholic Church. This clique of bishops closely identifies itself with the Liberal Party and with the progressive Left generally.

Its spokesmen and activists regularly attend LP rallies and add their loud voices to LP causes. But none from there so far have put their considerable weight behind a policy that could lead to quasi-legal drug use in their dioceses.

Listen, they believe that contraception is an anagram for abortion, so they shouldn’t have any problem in transliterating decriminalise to legalise. One would expect them to already be warning of the risk of such a policy. But we haven’t heard them so far.

And yet, if this project ever got the go ahead, priests and bishops would also be able to indulge in snorting coke and smoking crystal meth with the same impunity as everyone else. In Portugal – a Catholic country – no doubt, a little cannabis as a priest unwinds after a busy Mass isn’t a problem. He certainly can’t be prosecuted for it.

As citizens of the Philippines, under the reform legislation that would be needed for the archipelago to go Portuguese – members of the clergy would automatically be able to use drugs with the same impunity as everyone else. They might indulge while preparing their homilies or to help them deal with the endless lines of confessions that run throughout Lent as parishioners prepare for Easter.

So when Robredo described Portugal’s drugs policy as “Triumphant” – good word and all that – we’re not entirely sure what she means. What we do gather, though, is that by aligning herself with a progressive position – a European one at that – she affirms her role as a tireless crusader and banner carrier of the Liberal cause.

That guarantees to win her support and influence from among the elites of Liberal International, a global federation of Liberal political parties of which the LP is a full member; as well as with from like thinkers in the powerful Liberal institutions of the UN, the EU and so on.

And why she needs to do that is because they’re the real power behind her party. As far as electoral appeal is concerned, local support has all but evaporated. In short, adopting the Portugal solution for the Philippines drugs problems could, in turn and in time, make her “Triumphant” in some political sense.

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