Oplan Tokhang: The Philippines’ War on Drugs

Oplan Tokhang: The Philippines’ War on Drugs

Earlier this year, Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines decided to relaunch the anti-drug campaign known as “Oplan Tokhang”. The controversial anti-drug campaign is maintained by Duterte as his top priority since his leadership two years ago.[1] Since his 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte has vowed to kill every drug dealer and user in the country, and subsequently eradicate the use of illegal drugs within the Philippines.[2] His unrelenting and brash approach towards social and economic problems within the country has garnered heavy support within the Philippines, leading him to win a landslide majority within the Senate as President, which makes his proposed policies much easier to be rolled out.[3]

The country’s drug war has already invited continuous criticism by human rights organisations against President Duterte. In fact, the ethical issues of Duterte’s task force and their excessively violent method of executing individuals for the suspected drug trade halted the anti-drug campaign twice in two years.[1]

Despite that, the leader still maintains overwhelming support from his voters, mostly residing in metropolitan cities. A large proportion of these people are not directly affected by his drug policies and are satisfied by the increased sense of security residing within the suburbs of Manila and Cebu, places where crime and drug trade used to run rampant without Duterte’s aggressive drug policies.[2]

Duterte’s approach to suspected drug trade may be excessively ruthless, but examinations from an economic perspective reveal the actual implications of the war on drugs and show that his policies could negatively affect his supporters as well.

Drug supply

Take, for instance, the demand for methamphetamine (crystal meth) by drug users in the Philippines. Most Filipino users of this drug are young men living below the poverty line. These men work long hours in low-skilled labour vital for the rapid development of the infrastructure of the Philippines. Most of them spend their money on their addiction to the drug, as the psychoactive effects of methamphetamine allow them to continue working under highly stressful conditions, especially considering how much food they can afford.[4]

Duterte’s drug interdiction aims to remove every individual involved in the drug trade, with a focus on producers and dealers.[2] Through economic intuition, Duterte’s policies would decrease the supply of methamphetamine and hence drive prices up. However, with the nature of addiction, people are not likely to respond to a rise in the price of drugs as much as they would with any other good. The price elasticity of demand for methamphetamine would be relatively inelastic, in which the quantity demanded of the drug changes at a slower rate compared to the change in price. This could result in an increase in total drug revenue for suppliers. This could lead to the surviving suppliers to experience increased welfare and be more capable to commit and conceal more drug-related offenses, mitigating Duterte’s efforts to eradicate illegal drug trade.

Figure 1.1: Supply-demand diagram detailing the effect of decreased drug supply and total revenue received by drug suppliers.


War on the poor and drug demand

Duterte’s drug war has also prompted external scrutiny by human rights organisations due to extrajudicial killings of individuals within poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.[2] Most individuals who are executed in the streets during the crackdown are breadwinners of their family, resulting in the difficulty of the remaining family members, mainly poor women and children to financially support themselves.[5]

However, the people living within these neighbourhoods have noted that the rich offenders involved in the drug trade are treated quite differently. They usually become informants for law enforcement after being jailed, instead of being murdered like poorer individuals. This could potentially result in drug dealers  continuing their activities after getting released.[6] Aside from that, reports have also shown that many police officers receive money under the table for alleged drug offenders they kill in their crackdowns. Funeral homes are also alleged to pay these officers for bringing these bodies – creating a perverse incentive where these killings are encouraged, while providing further financial burden for these already poor families as they are forced to get their loved ones’ remains within these funeral homes.[6] It is unsurprising that Duterte’s drug policies will only aggravate the economic problems already plaguing the Philippines, such as income inequality, given the unlawful exploitation of the lives and economic welfare of the urban poor. Keeping in mind how the usage of methamphetamine is almost used as a substitute for food and other sustenance, this is likely to drive more individuals to methamphetamine usage.


Many who have experienced the “Oplan Tokhang” first-hand have agreed that rehabilitation, welfare and income-generation programs remain the only feasible solution to eradicate drug use in the Philippines.[5] The government can promote economic equity with these programs by alleviating Filipinos from extreme poverty. The poor would be able to afford food instead of relying on drugs for mental and physical sustenance, driving drug prices down. This would then prompt drug suppliers to stop their drug-related activities due to diminishing revenue, an outcome far more desirable for the government and people of the Philippines.


Further reading

[1] Palatino, M. (2018, February 6). Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines: new campaign, old problems. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/dutertes-drug-war-in-the-philippines-new-campaign-old-problems/

[2] Raphelson, S. (2017, November 13). Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte sustains support for deadly war on drugs. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/11/13/563841402/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-sustains-support-for-deadly-war-on-drugs

[3] Reuters. (2018, April 22). Nine out of 10 Filipinos support Duterte’s drugs war. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2115585/nine-out-10-filipinos-support-dutertes-drugs-war

[4] Shabu / methamphetamine / use in the Philippines: information xchange at Stuartxchange. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stuartxchange.org/Shabu

[5] Aldama, Z. (2018, January 20). How Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has become a war on the poor. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/2129538/how-philippines-war-drugs-has-become-war-poor

[6] Wells, M. (2017, February 4). War on drugs, war against the poor. Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/160492-war-on-drugs-war-against-poor

Featured image sourced from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rodrigo_Duterte_showing_diagram_of_drug_trade_network_1_7.7.16.jpg