In May last year President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the Philippines, riding high on a wave of popular support, promising to wipe out the country’s drug problem. In a country used to broken political promises and chronic misgovernment, Duterte’s populist agenda seemed irresistible; 14 months on, his popularity endures.

The president promised a no-holds-barred approach to the drug problem. Instead of merely talking about a “War on Drugs”, he actually promised to fight it. He has been as good as his word. Since he took control, according to government sources, there have been more than 1.2 million drug users and 89,000 pushers who have surrendered, resulting in a 26 per cent reduction of the total drug market, and a 29 per cent drop in crime.

That sounds impressive. However, in the same period, according to the police, more than 3,400 people have been killed in anti-drug operations. In addition, there have also been 2,100 drug-related deaths, thanks to gang warfare. Those deaths at the hands of the police represent extrajudicial killings, people killed without due process, supposedly in self-defence. Just recently, the police shot 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos, and it is this death, currently under investigation, that has triggered an intervention by the Catholic Church.

Everyone should be against the consumption of illegal drugs. To take a substance such as crystal meth represents an action that cannot be reconciled with any vision of human flourishing. It constitutes an act of self-harm. As such, it is irrational, and given that we are called to live in accordance with reason, it represents a serious sin. This magazine, in accordance with the teaching of the Church, takes the view that recreational drug use is seriously wrong. The Catechism rightly condemns drug abuse in the chapter dealing with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. Drug pushers are the merchants of death. As for drugs like marijuana, and other softer drugs, the difference is one of degree not kind.

While the evil of illegal drugs is not up for debate, the way governments deal with them is a matter for discussion. Can the extrajudicial killing spree that President Duterte has unleashed be justified in any way?

The answer must be negative. In simple terms, illegality is never to be fought by illegal means, and the rule of law is never to be upheld by breaking it. Last Sunday a statement from Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila was read in all churches after Holy Communion. In it the cardinal made clear that the way the drugs war is being fought in the Philippines targets the helpless and is wrong. The cardinal called for a national dialogue and reminded congregations that the scourge of drug addiction cannot be cured by force alone, but must depend on an effort by all sections of society.

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