ILAN BA TALAGA? | Hontiveros quizzes DDB on real number of PH drug users

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Sen. Ana Theresia "Risa" Hontiveros file photo released by her office.

MANILA, Philippines — Ilan ba talaga ang drug users sa Pilipinas [How many are the drug users in the Philippines really?]

Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros posed this question to the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) on Thursday during the Senate’s deliberation on the proposed 2018 national government budget, amid conflicting claims on the total number of drug dependents in the country.

Hontiveros pointed out that when the DDB was under the watch of retired general Dionisio Santiago, the agency was using the estimate of three to four million drug users in the Philippines.

Last July, then newly appointed DDB chief Dionisio, the chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) during the Arroyo administration, admitted that the said calculation, which was used by the Duterte administration to justify its war on drugs campaign, was his “guesstimate…based on my experience on the ground.”

Dionisio, who recently quit his post, replaced DDB chair Benjamin Reyes, who was sacked by President Rodrigo Duterte last May for saying that there were only 1.8 million drug users in the Philippines.

During the budget deliberations on Thursday, Hontiveros told the DDB that it needed to be “precise” on its figures “because they have budgetary implications, not only for your agency and the PDEA but also for the Department of Health.”

“We cannot plan the country’s national budget based on a ‘guesstimate,” the lawmaker added.

Hontiveros stressed the need to “unpack the numbers because two previous surveys of the DDB have shown that the number of drug users tends to be quite stable, never exceeding 2 million since 2008.”

Dito sa 3-4 million na drug users, ilan po dito ang dependents [Here in the 3-4 million drug users, how many here are dependents]? Ilan ang [How many are] occasional users at one-time users? Ilan po dito ang [How many are] current and hard users?” she told the DDB.

“More than the budgetary concerns, this is also a life and death issue. We cannot judge who lives or dies based on a guesstimate,” she said.

Also, Hontiveros asked for the DDB’s official position on the 10,000-bed capacity mega drug rehabilitation center at Fort Magsaysay in Palayan City, Nueva Ecija.

It was reported that Santiago had called the massive facility a “mistake”, “impractical” and a “miscalculation” on the part of the government. The said statements reportedly did not sit well with Duterte, who asked Santiago to resign from his post.

“According to the DDB itself, only about nine percent of over a million drug users who expressed their willingness to access treatment need to be committed in rehabilitation centers. Ninety-one percent do not need institutionalized intervention. The government response is currently limited to criminal prosecution and facility-based rehabilitation. These are clearly inadequate,” Hontiveros said.

According to the lawmaker, “instead of a white elephant rehabilitation facility,” what the country needs are barangay-based health intervention and rehabilitation programs and centers for drug dependents to be able to provide intervention programs to respond to the assessed needs of drug dependents.

These include consultation, case management, psycho-education, counseling, health and social support, relapse management, and other evidence-based health interventions and strategies.