Mixed Messages

During the last 25 years, we, as a nation, have made great strides in dealing with the complex problem of drug and alcohol addiction. Thanks to widespread anti-tobacco education and prevention efforts, the smoking rate for adults is currently at an all-time low. Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous provide those who are in recovery a supportive, empathetic community. Treatment facilities are offering more diverse programs, acknowledging that the process of recovery varies from person to person. Increasing access to naloxone has saved countless lives from heroin and opioid overdoses. And now, we’re seeing more openness toward harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges that help to combat HIV and hepatitis.

In 2017, it seems as though we’re finally turning the corner from waging a “war on drugs,” and instead employing a multi-tiered, social-ecological approach in a “war on drug addiction.” This is a rapidly evolving system with plenty of flaws and shortcomings, but we are still better off than we were in past decades.

Hopefully, this progress trickles down to the individual level and conveys a message to someone suffering from a substance use disorder that their community supports and cares about them and their recovery. As we work toward a society that is absent of prejudice, we are further empowering individuals to seek and maintain recovery.

So, I am deeply concerned about what we’re seeing take place in the Philippines, and what we’re hearing from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. If you haven’t been tuned in, Duterte is waging a brutal drug war that targets drug dealers and users. According to the Reuters News Agency, the Philippine Drug War has resulted in the loss of more than 9,000 lives—and that’s just since July 2016. A third of the killings are by the police, and the other two thirds were perpetrated by hired vigilantes. According to an investigation by Amnesty International, the killings are targeting “mostly poor and defenseless people,” and since Duterte has targeted urban slums, this could amount to “crimes against humanity” as defined by the International Criminal Court.

While the level of violence in the Philippines is terrifying, it should not be surprising, because Duterte’s brutal actions are utterly consistent with his campaign rhetoric, where he said: “All of you who are into drugs,…I will really kill you.” In response to accusations from the global community, he also said, “I don’t care about human rights, believe me.”

What’s happening in the Philippines is medieval and barbaric. So when the leader of the United States, President Donald Trump, praises Duterte by telling him he’s doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” it sends a message to Americans about the administration’s feelings about addiction. So too does the personal invitation to the White House Trump extended to Duterte. The man who blatantly, cavalierly and repeatedly rejected all concern about human rights and is leading an initiative to kill his own people—some merely because they suffer from addiction—has received both public praise and an invitation to the Oval Office.

No matter the political motivation for Duterte’s invitation, approval from our country’s leader sows confusion, doubt, and fear among those with substance use disorders and those trying to support people in recovery. It comes perilously close to saying: We knowingly support a man who thinks his country would be better off if you were dead. This is a message that undercuts the progress we’ve worked so hard for in combating addiction in the US.

From this humble health educator’s perspective, I see this is as a call to arms—not just against Duterte, but for all of the progress we have yet to make here in the US. Let’s get better at every level and collaborate like never before, from counselors to educators, law enforcement to lawmakers, social service workers to those in the mental health profession. Let’s create a force so strong that it radiates past our borders, and influences our neighbors around the world to elevate their dialogue and actions in addressing this disease.

Enough is enough with the mixed messages. To those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, you matter, and we are here to support you.

James Baker is a Prevention Educator at NCADA.

Categories: Commentary

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