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  • Nydia Ndam Carrillo

The ‘War on Drugs’ cannot be won: Security issue or social issue?

Nydia Ndam Carrillo is a final-year Politics and International Relations at UCL, specialising in post-colonialism and global security, with a focus on conflict development and resolution. 


The 50-year-long notorious 'War on Drugs' in the US started as part of a shift in the government’s drug control strategy to decrease usage and improve security and control but ultimately ended up being labelled a failure. The United States implemented a range of strategies to combat the drug crisis. These included traditional methods like source control and interdiction, and domestic law enforcement measures such as imposing excessively long prison terms for minor offences like drug possession. The authorities also targeted street-level drug dealers and users to tackle the issue.

The primary objectives of the 'War on Drugs' was to reduce drug trafficking by limiting drug availability, ideally leading to a decrease in drug use and drug-related violence. However, despite all the efforts, drug consumption trends remained unaffected, and it was impossible to conclusively link any reduction in crime to this policy. Moreover, the 'War on Drugs' was exceptionally expensive. Additionally, the sequels of this ineffective project remain today. Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman admitted that the Nixon administration started the War on Drugs ‘as a racially motivated crusade to criminalise Blacks and the anti-war left’. Minority groups were unfairly targeted then and now face mass incarceration due to racial bias. It led to political instability in other nations, contributing to the increase in drug-related violence and the creation of drug-lord imperialism and cartels.

This futile attempt to stop drug abuse in the US ended up creating a 'global drug war', with different countries engaging in similar programmes to promote their political agendas. The US aimed to decrease accessibility to drugs by stopping the traffic coming from Latin America, through increasing the capital provided for extreme revolutionary groups in Latin America. These and other incentives to combat drug trafficking contributed to health crises, violence and mass incarceration. However, the War on Drugs is not exclusive to the North and South of the American continent, with many populist leaders in Southeast Asia mirroring the American model to retain control and power.

Countries like the Philippines and Thailand had populist leaders who started a strict war against drugs as a strategy to cease all political dissent. This strategy is successful at first, as most people desire order in times of crisis, threats to the social order, violence and peak criminality. Populists, thus, focus on increasing the salience of disorder and lawlessness by criminalising drugs, people with an addiction, and dealers, to then present themselves as a beacon of stability against this chaos and tackle this problem. While relatively non-populist countries, like the US, may also use fear of crime and disorder to advance their political agendas, populist leaders are distinct. Populist leaders are not worried about the long-term survival of their party once their term is over and are solely focused on retaining power. They achieve this by limiting freedoms and eroding judicial independence. All these wars on drugs jeopardise health and social programmes by directing all the public funds to prison systems and increasing both police and military budgets. However, ultimately they failed to yield positive results and protect their people.

Overall, the continuous futile attempts to replicate the drug war in different political systems have all failed, leading to increased violence, significant civilian losses and a decrease in human rights and security. With an analysis of the War on Drugs in Thailand and Philippines, we will explore their strategies, and how to successfully tackle this social crisis.


Part of the Golden Triangle, along with Laos and Myanmar, the world's highest heroin and methamphetamines producer region, Thailand has been battling drug problems for decades. In 2003, Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced a brutal anti-drug programme as part of their War on Drugs. Overall, this initiative was considered a failure that led to human rights violations, a spike in HIV/AIDS due to underground usage, around 3,000 extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and failed to break the drug operations in the Golden Triangle. Despite human rights violations and the research indicating little chance of success, Thailand's War on Drugs was highly popular in Thai society. In 2005, 74% still supported the war drug, and saw the government’s strategy as helpful in resolving this prevalent issue, proving the theory of narco-diplomacy.

Thailand was once lauded for its successful efforts in education and prevention against AIDS. The country had implemented various campaigns and programs, including the distribution of condoms to sex workers in brothels and health clinics, which helped to curb the spread of the disease. However, the government's war on drugs had a devastating impact on these achievements. Similar to the US, which opposed any prevention and education programs for drugs, the Thai government also refused to promote needle-exchange programs, despite research proving their effectiveness in reducing HIV transmission.

Eventually, the United Nations Special Rapporteur issued a statement expressing concern for the deaths connected to the war. Still, Thaksin dismissed these and vehemently stated that Thailand followed international regulations and invited them to come and investigate. After a 10-month-long campaign, Thaksin declared victory against the war, claiming that even though drugs had not completely vanished, the illegal trade had reduced significantly and no longer posed a significant threat to the country. However, after a massacre in October 2022, where gunman Panya Khamrap, fired from the police force for methamphetamine possession and facing judgement on drug charges, killed 38 people before his judgement, Thailand declared a new war on drugs.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's decision to include the drug war in their national agenda concerned many, as worries rose that a new violent police force will continue to abuse their power. Instead, the government invested in training for the police force, increased resources and border security and managed to suppress illicit opium production through a model of humane drug crop suppression. Additionally, the government's new Narcotics Law, introduced in 2021, helped remove the barriers to harm reduction, focusing on youth consumption and rehabilitation, including needle exchanges, HIV testing and PrEP.


Like Thaksin, Philippines's President Rodrigo Duterte started what seemed a never-ending war on drugs that lasted three years. After winning the elections in June 2016, Duterte promised he would actively and vigorously pursue those involved in any drug-related activity. As part of his fight against drugs, the bloody campaign included a police death squad targeting sellers and consumers, unleashing a wave of violence and madness in the nation.

In addition to indiscriminate killings that have created a constant violent atmosphere, the power of the Philippine National Police, judicial system, media, and even the church has drastically decreased. Top officials were granted immunity for their crimes, and Duterte was blamed for the impoverishment and corruption of the nation. Some human rights organisations estimate that around 27,000 people were killed by security forces and non-state groups. In contrast, the police force has a record of only 7,884 victims of the police in drug operations as of August 31st, 2022.

In October 2016, the ICC started investigating the mass killings and violence in the Philippines, to which Duterte quickly responded, questioning the utility of the international court in helping small countries and threatening to withdraw the Philippines from the ICC. In the next two years, the ICC closely supervised and started investigating the violence taking place in the Philippines and Duterte and his government's role in it. After a one-year notice period, President Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Despite the withdrawal, the ICC retains the authority to investigate criminal acts that occurred while the Philippines was still a member state of the ICC. This means that the ICC could proceed with further investigations related to crimes committed during the country's membership in the ICC.

It is believed that crimes against humanity were committed in the Philippines between 2011 and 2016 as part of Duterte's war on drugs. In September 2021, the ICC approved the investigation without cooperation from Duterte's government. In 2023, following a brief pause in the investigation, multiple unsuccessful appeals were submitted by the Philippine government, asking the ICC to cease its investigation into the killings and trying to block the families of the victims from being included in the proceedings. Ultimately, on July 18th 2023, the ICC rejected the Philippine government's appeals and resumed the investigations into the drug-war-related killings and the alleged death squad under Duterte's leadership. In July 2022, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. replaced Duterte after his six-year term. While Marcos created community-based rehabilitation centres trying to help with reintegration, killings have continued, even increasing from Duterte's last year as President, proving Marcos’s approach is no different to Duterte’s.


The approach taken in the War on Drugs to stop drug use has been proven to repeatedly fail. Besides, a reality worth facing is to acknowledge that eradicating drug use may not be possible, but it can be reduced and abuse can be prevented. The current criminalisation approach has led to the proliferation of dangerous drug cartels, mass incarceration, disproportionate violence, and deaths. Although decriminalising drugs may not seem like a sensible solution to some, a safer and more secure society can be achieved by investing more funds into anti-drug education, treatment, and research. This shift from policies of coercion and suppression towards a preventive alternative can be a positive first step.

It appears that Thailand has made more progress than the Philippines government by prioritising rehabilitation and education instead of criminalization. Although the approach taken in 2003 failed, the most recent approach aims to address the social issues in a more empathetic manner. The Philippine government, on the other hand, has created a lawless nation with no sense of right and wrong among the ruling class, and despite Marcos's slight focus on rehabilitation, killings and unsafety have continued. Drugs, just like hunger or poverty, are a public health issue, and a public health issue should be dealt with a conscious approach, through behavioural change.


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