Dangerous Drugs Board: 3 million figure for drug users 'a guesstimate'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 13) — Newly appointed Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) chairman Dionisio Santiago on Thursday stood by his estimate of three million drug users in the Philippines.

The DDB's 2015 Nationwide Survey on the Nature and Extent of Drug Abuse shows only 1.8 million drug users. But from this 1.8 million figure, Santiago said he would add two more users who did not turn themselves in to rehabilitation.

"Hindi ba sabi, 'One is to two.' Para sa akin. 'Yung isang papasok, dalawang equivalent na ayaw pumasok. So easily, parang safe na sa akin ang three million," Santiago told CNN Philippines' The Source.

[Translation: They say, 1:2. That's for me. If one comes in (to rehabilitation), there are two who don't. So easily, for me it's safe to say 3 million.]

When CNN Philippines' anchor Pinky Webb clarified if the three million figure was backed up by a study, Santiago explained this was his "guesstimate."

"Partly guesstimate na iyan based on a realistic situation on the ground," said Santiago, a retired general who was Armed Forces of the Philippines' Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2003.

Figures from the country's rehabilitation centers would not yield three million users, he said.

"Because in reality, alam natin sa [we know on the] ground, there are more people out than those who enter rehabilitation," said Santiago, who was named chairman of the DDB on July 5.

More than a year into President Rodrigo Duterte's war on illegal drugs, there is still confusion over the number of drug users in the country. Duterte has mentioned up to four million drug users as a rationale for his campaign, while his critics allege this figure is overstated, and fails to justify the alleged killings related to the drug war.

Reference to the lower number of drug users has cost the previous DDB chairman, Benjamin Reyes, his job. Reyes used the 1.8-million figure from the research.

"I would like to put to task publicly this Reyes," Duterte said in a speech on May 24. "You're fired today. Get out of the service. You don't contradict your own government."

The new DDB head, Santiago, formerly held the post of chief of an affiliated agency, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency from 2006 to 2011. He ran for senator under Duterte's party in the 2016 elections but lost.

The DDB is a policy-making body composed of representatives from various agencies, including PDEA, PNP, the Department of Health, the Department of Justice, and the National Youth Commission among others.

'Reclassify' drug users

The new chair also said there was a need to define the kinds of drug users in the country in order to extend appropriate treatment.

"We have to reclassify our addicts," said Santiago.

"How do we classify them? Diyan papasok ang DOH [That's where DOH comes in]," he added, referring to the Department of Health.

He said that there were occasional users, and there were those who already suffered brain damage from drug abuse. In those cases, Santiago maintained that they should be brought to psychiatric facilities instead of jail.

Santiago also said he favored a review of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. He believes some provisions — particularly the list of dangerous drugs and their corresponding punishments — may be excessive and led to problems, including horrible prison conditions due to overcrowding.

"May mga provisions na very punitive... Isang gram o dalawang gram, kukulungin mo, tapos magrereklamo tayo na overcrowded prisons," he said.

[Translation: Some provisions are very punitive... For one gram or two grams, you jail them, then we complain of overcrowded prisons.]

Santiago is also a former head of the New Bilibid Prison, which is notorious for the illegal drug trade. He berated the facility's administration on Thursday over failing to curb the illegal drug trade in the national penitentiary.