Thursday, October 26, 2006


Here in the Philippines, a drug arrest — possession, use, or distribution of which — ranks as among the toughest offense to beat; not to mention that a defendant cannot secure temporary release because in such cases, no provision to post bail exists.

The justice system had also done away with meting out a trip to the rehab as the usual punishment for those convicted of drug use.

Legislators had finally realized that no court of law can ever make a drug user kick his habit; unless, of course, the addict himself admits he has a problem and is completely willing to rid himself of it. Armed with such insight, nowadays, even a moderate marijuana user who gets caught with minimal amount could face at least two years locked behind bars.

Local prison jargon refers to drug users as "section five offenders;" whereas, "section eleven offenders" are those caught with substantial amount with intention to distribute — applicable to drug lords -- smugglers or producers of shabu (crystal meth or methamphetamine). Those charged with a section eleven offense would oftentimes claim being users also; hence, if classified as "five-eleven offenders," they could stand a chance to receive lesser penalties. They could, in effect, seek mercy from the court by claiming they sold drugs to sustain their habit.

Typically, section eleven and eleven-five offenders receive sentences of 30-to-48 years, 40-to-60 years, or life.

An offender would often languish for many months in one of the city jails before he sees his day in court; years before he sees its final conclusion. Hence, someone whose case got dismissed or found not guilty could have still wasted some precious years incarcerated in a city jail. Those found guilty will be transferred to a maximum security facility as in Muntinlupa.

The use of mind-expanding and/or sedative drugs is not exclusively a modern day phenomenon in the Philippine archipelago. It has been part of the local landscape since the Spanish regime. In fact, even Jose Rizal painted one of his prominent characters of Noli Me Tangere as having spent his final years as a drug addict.

Once a wealthy and powerful man, this particular character had later become feebly, jaundiced and grungy; spending the daytime sitting by the sidewalk and staring mindlessly at nothing in particular — totally lost in space. In the evenings, he could be seen leaning on his cane as he walked toward a filthy, narrow alley that leads to the door of Anfion Public Smoking Den. Don Santiago de los Santos, otherwise known as Capitan Tiago, a once respected gobernadorcillo and father of Maria Clara, spent the final years of his life suffering from a serious opium addiction.

Although Capitan Tiago is a mere fictional character, opium dens, however, legally existed in Manila during the nineteenth-century. Opium was controlled by the government, and a source of great revenues — tariffs, license fees, opium farming, and etc. And this may be the reason why the powerful Chinese merchant Carlos Palanca approached Emilio Aguinaldo and enticed him into creating an opium monopoly.

Anfion was the name given to opium which was compounded and prepared for smoking; however, only the Chinese were permitted to smoke it in licensed public smoking dens.

For the most part, it was the affluent members of the Chinese community who indulged in this vice and patronized these opium dens. There were also some Filipinos and mestizos who engaged in its use and risked getting apprehended. Unarguably, opium trade in the Philippines had provided the Spanish with a lucrative revenue stream, but when the Americans took over, their altruistic intention for the Philippines became of greater importance. In the culture of prohibition — which was also a strong and growing trend in America by 1898 — complete eradication was the only opium policy for a U.S. colony.

The U.S. argument was simple: opium smoking is unhealthy and immoral. And with the U.S. intention to improve the lives of Filipinos, its policy must therefore oppose opium smoking from the beginning.

However, there was a certain irony in this colonial prohibition policy, because at that time, opium remained a legal commodity in America throughout the period of 1898-1910. Subsequently, a more stringent law against opium in the U.S. was created and passed — the Harrison Narcotic Act.

Most American addicts in the nineteenth-century were middle-class white women and, to a lesser extent, Civil War veterans. The former took — not smoked — opium as a more discreet and socially acceptable antidote (than alcohol) when dealing with life’s daily stress. The latter consumed opium to assuage their pain from old war wounds. Most of these addicts took opium in tonic or powdered form rather than smoked it, a common means of consumption among ethnic Chinese the world over.

However, opium addiction in America eventually spread to other ethnic groups, including African Americans and ethnic Chinese. Opium also began to affect the lower classes when a derivative was developed from which — heroin. Thus, prohibition campaigns grew stronger out of fear that these new addicts would become susceptible to committing crimes, as well as generally disrupt society to fulfill their drug addiction; an image of addicts that is now a familiar one.

But in the Philippines, under Spanish law, the Filipinos were forbidden to purchase and smoke opium; in some part because of their poverty. By continuing similar preventive measures, American colonial officials would certainly demonstrate their benevolent intentions to improve the country and its inhabitants. Ironically, the primary opium users in the Philippines were the most hard-working, powerful, and wealthy Chinese businessmen; definitely not prone to laziness and not likely to commit violent crimes. Nonetheless, U.S. legislators pursued a general prohibition policy in the Philippines with the hope that the whole ethnic Chinese problem, as they deemed it, would literally go away.

In the end — unlike in European colonies in Asia — U.S. officials successfully prevented a potential opium dependency among the populace by finally outlawing opium altogether throughout the Philippine archipelago. However, smuggling of it by the Chinese ensued in which the Americans failed to eradicate altogether. The coastal waters that surround the Philippine archipelago proved impossible for the U.S. ships to monitor.

At present, the smuggling and distribution of illegal drugs, as well as addiction to it, continue to be a major problem in the archipelago.

Despite stringent laws and stiffer penalties, the lure of big money to be made from its traffic, including the promise of temporary solace derived from its use, are elements much too powerful for many to resist.

Additional sources:
Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal
As translated in English by Maria Soledad Lacson-Locsin
Published by Bookmark, Inc.
The American Colonial State in the Philippines - Global Perspectives
Julianne Go and Anne L. Foster, editors
Anvil Publishing, Inc.

Vintage photo credit:
Opium den, Malinta Street, Manila, early 1900s
U.S. Library of Congress / Philippines Image Collection


posted by Señor Enrique at 12:13 PM


Blogger ipanema said...

This reminds me of the Opium War when England was a key player. With the East India Company in the region, it ferried tons of opium grown in India into China in exchange for Chinese goods and tea.

I remember watching a movie (forgot the title)where people openly smoke or sniff as if it's part of their daily lives. But of course it was done only by the rich, as you've mentioned.

In my location, possession of illegal drugs is punishable by death.

October 26, 2006 3:08 PM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

There was a classic movie that I saw a couple of times, Ipanema --"Once Upon A Time In America" -- in which Robert De Niro would get a respite from their thuggish activities by going to an opium den in New York's Chinatown for a weekend of indulgence.

I think they had eliminated death penalty here in the Philippines; life would be the most one would get nowadays for having committed a serious crime.

That was rather an insidious act by the British to corrupt the Chinese with opium so they could get what they want from China, huh?

October 26, 2006 4:19 PM  

Blogger General Bird said...

I'm curious to know how serious drug abuse in present-day Philippines is perceived to be, relative to the harsh sentencing laws you mentioned.

In the U.S., there's a substantial ongoing debate about sentencing laws that are, by one side of the argument, out of proportion to the crime. That argument describes a justice system showing arbitrary, even contradictory values, and a prison system overcrowded with persons convicted of relatively innocuous crimes.

Is this an issue for the Philippine criminal justice system?

October 26, 2006 5:08 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe there was once a time where hard drugs were openly allowed, even in public. The menace of drugs is such a destructive dreadnaught; sometimes I fear that in the future, drug merchants could be so powerful that they could possibly wreck the society wide open; for they hold the money and money means power. I hope it won't happen...

October 26, 2006 7:50 PM  

Blogger ipanema said...

They had that reputation during that era.

I remember that movie, Eric. There was this Chinese movie that made it to the Oscars, I forgot the title. It was set in Shanghai in the 30s.

October 26, 2006 8:22 PM  

Blogger PhilippinesPhil said...

I despise drug users. They are self-indulgent and ONLY the worst of the worst profit from their stupid habit. The common attitude is to hate the "pushers," but without users there would be no smuggling and no pushers.

October 26, 2006 9:30 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dislike when people get involved with drugs. I'm not judging them but being addicted to drugs will kill a person thus break many bonds that they have fostered; especially when it comes to familial ties.

But if they choose to walk that pathway, what can we do?

October 27, 2006 10:35 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Drug abuse cases abound here in Manila, General Bird, especially among the poor sections. Shabu (crystal meth) much like crack cocaine in the States, is cheap and readily available. Shabu is often the drug of choice by many locals to escape their bleak predicament. There are supposedly high officials who protect its distribution networks in exchange for generous payoffs. Actually, based on some whispers, most politicians in the provinces get substantial campaign money from drug lords.

Perhaps, the harsh penalties for drug convictions here in the Philippines reflect the government's intention to discourage the population from it; however, drug use and abuse goes on unabated.

October 27, 2006 10:47 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

I agree with you, Major Tom, and hope as well that the dreadful scenario you painted never comes into fruition.

October 27, 2006 10:50 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Please, Ipanema, if you ever remember it let me know. Now you got me excited and wanting to see it.

October 27, 2006 10:51 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

That's right, Phil, without the demand for it, pushers won't have any reason to get into that business.

Two close friends we lost to drugs. They lost their families, assets, and whatever integrity they had in their professions. What made it worse was that both men were incredibly intelligent and achieved the pinnacle of success in their respective career. However, despite all that money and success, they've allowed themselves to succumb to their drug addictions. To this day, I am saddened when I think of them.

I also know of a medical doctor, a good friend of my brother, who died of drug overdose. Turned out, he was addicted to pain killers but was quite adept in keeping it a secret. He was also a fine man who allowed drugs to overwhelm him.

October 27, 2006 11:02 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

At times, Kyels, the best thing to do is let go and let God, for those with addictions have serious inner turmoil thay they alone can face up to and resolve.

October 27, 2006 11:05 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I do agree with you Eric.


October 27, 2006 10:54 PM  

Blogger ka tony said...

Hi Eric,

I think the movie that Ipanema was referring to was "Shanghai Triad" great movie!!! This movie was by Zhang Yimou, my favorite director. Yimou also did Judou, Raise the Red Lantern & The Story of Qui JU, great cinematography! This Hongkong based film company used to be a post TV commercial production company "Salon Films" which I'm proud I worked with during my advertising years in Manila.

for your info,
ka tony

July 26, 2008 4:52 PM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

"Raise the Red Lantern" I enjoyed very much, Ka Tony. And you're right, superb cinematography, indeed!

Boy, I'm truly in awe of your talents in the advertising field. Very glamorous :)

July 27, 2008 8:32 AM  

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Life in Manila as observed by a former New Yorker who with a laptop and camera has reinvented himself as a storyteller. Winner of the PHILIPPINE BLOG AWARDS: Best Photo Blog in 2007 and three Best Single Post awards in 2008.


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