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First Person: Moving from fear to hope after war on drugs in the Philippines

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Thousands of people across the Southeast Asian country were reportedly killed during the so-called war on drugs which was promoted by the last Filipino administration.

But now a more compassionate and less punitive approach is being taken from the local level up.

Michael John Maestro shows drug-abuse prevention illustrations by local students.

Michael John Maestro shows drug-abuse prevention illustrations by local students.

UN News’ Daniel Dickinson travelled to Antipolo – close to the capital Manlia – to meet Michael John Maestro, a registered nurse who works on drug-abuse prevention and treatment at the Antipolo City Anti-Drug Abuse Office and whose work has been supported by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“One young man, who I will call Carlo, who abused meth amphetamine was referred to our office. He was having psychotic episodes in December last year and January this year and was being threatening towards his mother.

He also tried to choke a child. His family realized they needed to keep him and other people in the community safe, so they kept him locked in his room. He only had his dog Butchokoy for company.

Carlo at home with his dog Butchokoy.

Carlo at home with his dog Butchokoy.

I realized that his abuse of drugs was due to mental health issues as he was showing symptoms of schizophrenia, which could have been chemically- induced by the meth amphetamine.

He was prescribed anti-psychotic drugs six weeks ago and the change since I last saw him is incredible. He has not experienced any more psychotic episodes, his mood is more positive and he is able to move around his neighbourhood, even to play basketball with other young people.

Crime and punishment

During the war on drugs he might have been targeted and thrown in jail and perhaps even killed. That period was characterized by fear and punishment and people who use drugs were considered evil and a menace to society.

It was clear to me that Carlo needed compassion and understanding and not punishment. He is a normal person, he just has different medical needs. Drug addiction is a chronic disorder. It is both a medical and mental health condition, which requires treatment and that is now the new approach taken here in Antipolo and by health authorities across the country.

This change in policy and our compassion towards people who use drugs has resulted in more people seeking treatment for their condition at the Antipolo City Anti-Drug Abuse Office. Last year, 30 people voluntarily sought treatment in our office, but already during the first five months of 2024 we have seen 36 patients.

Reducing stigma

By showing respect and empathy, we can continue to help to reduce the stigma that still exists around people who take drugs. This change will take time, but I think through my experience of talking about drugs at schools and community centres that people are ready to listen.

Young men play basketball in Antipolo City.

Young men play basketball in Antipolo City.

With the help of UNODC, I am using a tool-kit of questionnaires which identify the needs of patients and inform treatment plans. The tool-kit tracks all sorts of economic, health and social data and from the information we gather, we can refer the patient to the appropriate city agency to treat and support him or her.

The tool-kit approach is unique and we are carrying out an impact study with the hope that if the results are positive, we can expand it to other municipalities in the Philippines.

I’m very passionate about my job. I look at people and see that they need help, my role is to take care. The love and passion I feel towards the people who step into my office and the positive change in their life that I can contribute to through a compassionate approach gives me the motivation to do this job.”



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