Killing pushers won't kill drug problem

This article is more than 12 months old

Most cost-effective and humane approach in the fight against drugs is reducing demand and profits

There is no public sympathy for drug dealers and not much more for drug addicts.

Trade in illegal drugs is associated with corruption and violence by suppliers and petty crime by those who need money to feed their habit, so politicians who crack down on drugs can generally count on public support.

No one has gone further recently than Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whose leadership more than 10,000 alleged drug dealers and users have been gunned down by the police or vigilantes.

Officially, the police shoot only when faced with the threat of violent resistance in carrying out their duties, but all the indications are that Mr Duterte gave them the green light to execute alleged drug dealers without warning.

Within some communities where employment opportunities are few and social support is lacking, drug dealing can appear to be one of the few ways in which a person without prospects can make a living.

This happens in poorer countries such as the Philippines, but also in depressed areas of wealthier nations such as the US and Britain.

The most cost-effective and humane approach to dealing with damage that illegal drugs can do is to focus on reducing demand and the money that can be made out of them.

Public education is necessary, but it needs to be adapted for different audiences.

Young people who know others who have used drugs with little obvious harm will not be put off by scare stories that do not match what they see.

They might take more notice of information initiatives that engage the services of former or even present users close to their own age, who can provide real experience-based advice.

Among the most effective anti-drug programmes in modern times was that of the Black Panther Party in the US in the 1960s. The party gave users in its programme a strong political motivation to give up, with such effect that it became a target of organised crime and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The example seems to indicate strongly that causes that spur people with ideals and a sense of purpose can overcome the appeal of harmful drug use.

Governments are rarely able to generate such feelings, but they may at least facilitate the organisations that can.

Economic and social policies should not only create employment but also opportunities for advancement - promotion within institutions, training to enable more remunerative employment elsewhere or increments that come with experience - are essential to providing an environment that dissuades drug abuse.

There should also be engagement with users and former users, as well as organisations, to hammer out improved strategies for countering the damage the trade in illicit drugs does.

Dialogue is more likely to be fruitful than ostracism.

While there may not be a great meeting of minds on some questions, establishing common ground on harm reduction and provision of reliable public information would be of benefit.

These approaches might not appeal to sectors of the public who have welcomed the instant fix of shooting alleged drug pushers but are likely to be more effective in the long run.

The writer is a freelance writer in Singapore. This article was published in The Business Times on Oct 27.