In Eradicating Illegal Drug Use in the PH, Rehabilitation Works Better Than Tokhang

A former drug addict shares his firsthand account from his fall to addiction to his road to recovery. The question remains: Will the administration give others struggling with drug dependency this same fighting chance?

“Tokhang” has been a haunting word for many — first in Duterte’s bulwark, Davao City, then in the whole Philippines, since the campaign was rolled out in his election last 2016. Tokhang, a part of Duterte’s drug war campaign, has killed thousands of alleged drug users and pushers, many of whom coming from poor families. Fathers, mothers, teens, and children — no one could escape the barrel of this brutal crackdown.

Since 2016, around 6,000 Filipinos have been killed according to the Philippine National Police — a measly estimate, according to some human rights groups, which puts the figure at around 27,000. Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student, is one of the most remembered victims of the Duterte administration’s drug war. There are many others — nameless victims who have ended up dead on the streets, in their own homes, and within the vicinity of their loved ones.

With thousands who have fallen, there are also those who are lucky to have been spared. John Robert Lamera, a 35-year-old nurse, is one of them. Now a recovering addict, Lamera works in the Department of Health — Treatment and Rehabilitation Center (DOH-TRC) in Iloilo — helping those who were once just like him recover.

A Firsthand Account

Lamera was 14 when he tasted his first drug.

His 14th birthday was significant because of the start of his experience with methamphetamine or shabu, which he says eventually became his drug of choice.

“The shabu was a birthday gift from my friend. But before that, I was already smoking, I was drinking alcohol — I’d even tried marijuana. When I tried shabu for the first time, siyempre nanibago.”

At first, it was not a problem, he said, and he attributed this to his financial incapability to sustain the newfound addiction. “I was a high school student that time. I could only use shabu every time someone from the city brought it to our town, and it was four to five times more expensive than marijuana.”

It only became a problem when he entered college, free from the guidance of his guardians and away from home. His old habits soon caught up with him. “I stayed in a place wherein the boarding house was well known for being a haven of those using illegal drugs. Since I had a history of using drugs, it was easy for me to get caught up in the vice.”

Lamera also said that he would also use drugs in school, stating that there were “a lot of places in [their] school where one can hide and use drugs.” Using illegal substances became a routine for him, up to the point that he would use them like daily supplements. He would prioritize using drugs over studying, and he would plan his budget around buying drugs instead of food. When he started working as a nurse, he would even use drugs while on duty at the hospital.

At 19, his girlfriend became pregnant. But this responsibility did not make him stop. He found himself still putting drugs ahead of anything. “Before my [first] rehabilitation, I did not see it as something unmanageable. It was only until my second rehabilitation that I realized that, during those times, I was already struggling with my problem with drugs. That I was too immersed already in the world of drug addiction.”

Lamera’s journey to continuous recovery was not a linear path.

He revealed that he first enrolled in rehab in 2014, but relapsed and went back to using illegal drugs. Apart from that, he got involved in drug pushing and stayed in Bakhaw, Mandurriao, in Iloilo City — a barangay notorious for drug dealers, pushers, and users.

Lamera recalls walking down the sidewalks of Jaro Plaza, having disheveled hair, reeking with the stench of having not bathed for days. At around 7:30 p.m. of April 29, 2014, his relatives rescued him and helped him enroll again in the rehabilitation center he once walked out of.

He eventually found himself in DOH-TRC. “It was actually my aunt who mainly facilitated the enrollment because my other family members still could not accept the fact that I was engrossed in my vices.”

A Second Life through Rehabilitation

In DOH-TRC, rehabilitation is mainly divided into three programs: Detox, Primary Rehabilitation, and Aftercare Rehabilitation.

In the first phase, Detox, the body is cleared of the substances, and the patients are medically and psychiatrically evaluated if they can handle rehabilitation. Depending on the substance the patients had been dependent on, they are given intravenous fluids like dextrose and medications to address “probable withdrawal from the substance,” according to DOH-TRC Iloilo Outpatient-Aftercare (OPAC) Units Head Dr. Ma. Theresa Vargas-Castañeda.

A drug dependency evaluation (DDE) — composed of an interview and a physical examination — follows, where the severity of the patient’s dependence is determined. “During my detox, I told my case managers that I was okay already with the 20 days I’d spent there. But they advised that I undergo rehabilitation,” recalled Lamera.

The next phase of the rehabilitation process, the Primary Rehabilitation Program, has two classifications: the Outpatient Rehabilitation Program and the Inpatient Rehabilitation Program. Both last for at least six months.

Lastly, the final phase is where patients are “reintegrated into society.” As Vargas-Castañeda explained, in this phase, “they will undergo more lectures and skills training, and go through activities with their families. These are mainly to help them in income generation.”

All over the Philippines, excluding private institutions offering the same services, DOH-TRC currently has 14 centers — six in Luzon, three in Visayas, and five in Mindanao. Although these are mainly funded by the government, patients are not treated for free. “According to Republic Act №9165 or the Dangerous Drugs Act, there should be cost-sharing,” Vargas-Castañeda said.

Through this system, the patients are asked to pay based on their families’ paying capacities. “They are categorized based on the Medical Social Welfare Department’s classifications,” she continued. “If the patient comes from a more capable family, they are to pay more but the treatments will be the same.”.

The Road to Recovery

In terms of the challenges he faced during his rehabilitation, Lamera cited that it was especially hard to get rid of the temptation to use drugs again, “Hindi siya madaling baguhin. Especially during my early years in rehab, I was manipulative, a liar, and lazy.”

Lamera also revealed his struggle with loneliness. “I blamed myself for reaching that point in my life. There was no cubicle in our dorm that I didn’t cry in,” he recounted.

Furthermore, there was no communication with people outside the rehabilitation center — no visitation for the first two months, no phone calls, no privileges. In keeping with the program, the goal was for the patient to look inwardly and to fellow drug dependents on their road to recovery. This was until one could avail of a family encounter privilege, wherein the family members of the patient confront the patient and make amends. “Kailangan pag bumisita [ang family], wala nang violence, na it has been engraved in my heart that their efforts to help enroll me in rehab were for my own good.”

After eight months into the first phase of the rehabilitation program, Lamera was able to graduate and proceed to the Aftercare Program. On what motivated him to persevere in the program and actually commit to it, Lamera confided that it was his inspiration to change himself, grabbing the opportunity and chances given to him in a place where help could be sought.

Moreover, he kept his family in mind. “Ang aking mindset was that ‘I will do this, kakayanin ko ‘to for my kids, for my wife, for my parents, for my sisters.’” Lamera said he did not realize that recovery, in actuality, was putting yourself first.

Today, Lamera has been enjoying sobriety for almost five years, maintaining his family, and is now working as a house parent in DOH-TRC Iloilo. “I’m healthily living here, helping facilitate fellow drug dependents go through what I went through before [in rehab].”

When asked to compare his life pre and postrehabilitation, he disclosed that he could not find a single word to describe how extremely different the two are. “I’m more responsible sa family ko, sa budgeting ko. Before, around 30 percent of the 24 hours in a day was allotted for drugs, the rest was for resting,” attests Lamera. “Once nag-recover, everything would follow normally.”

The Impact of Tokhang vs. Rehabilitation

If Lamera enrolled a year late in rehab, his fate might have gone downhill, considering that tokhang operations were implemented in 2016. “Before, one might be proud still, with their head held high while saying that one is a drug addict or drug dependent. Now, one wouldn’t dare to label oneself as a former drug addict, pusher, or dependent,” he remarked.

Lamera commented that while he approves of the induced awareness on drug addiction among Filipinos, he is not supportive of the idea of killings in police operations with regard to tracking drug users and recoverees. “It’s not right to kill or to take the rights of a person just because he is using or selling drugs,” he justified.

At the cost of such awareness and stigma are the lives of those slain in undocumented killings in drug bust operations of the police all over the country.

Even with 56 currently established residential rehabilitation centers around the country — both private and public — these numbers don’t seem enough. As of 2019, 5,227 patients have been admitted to these rehabilitation centers. If equally divided, each center must have catered to approximately 93 patients while having limited staff and budget.

Lamera pointed out that if the drug problem in the country was addressed with the help of psychiatrists, psychologists, and legal practitioners, the program could have been more helpful rather than destructive. When asked if the program such as that of DOH-TRC Iloilo is enough to address the eradication of illegal drugs in the country, Lamera responded, “As a product of this rehabilitation center, para sa akin, effective talaga.” However, he lamented that if only there were a much bigger budget allocated to the program so as to reach even farther slum areas that had dependents and recoverees who want to undergo rehabilitation, the program could be further improved.

Furthermore, Lamera pointed out that acceptance should be inculcated among recoverees who are subjected to rehabilitation. “You have to accept yourself, accept your past, learn from your past. Tapos ang past, study mo siya kung paano ma-develop ‘yong present. Because your future will always depend on what you are doing now.”

In a society where rehabilitation is viewed as a sign of failure rather than as an avenue for growth and improvement, the said stigma enveloping the use of illegal drugs is still counterproductive. Instead of encouraging users and pushers to accept changes in their lifestyle and rehabilitation, they are forced to dismiss this possibility entirely and go into hiding — or else risk being victims of the violent drug war. Beyond their lack of self-acceptance, society also discriminates against these recoverees and sometimes regards them as lesser people than they are.

While budgeting and awareness seem to be the key to strategically eradicating the use of illegal drugs in the country, the first step is shifting the view on drug addiction to one that is healthier and progressive. Filipinos need to be aware that recovery is not a linear one-step process. It may be life-long, but it does not in any way make it any less positively impactful in rebuilding the character of the patients.

As Lamera nicely summed it up, “Yes, addiction is real, but recovery is possible.”

This article was written by our contributor, Dab Castaneda.

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