By Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III

The title is meant to provoke. I differ from those who think that the son of the Justice Secretary must be punished for possession of illegal drugs.

My stand: The son deserves humane treatment. In fact, in a kinder world, the son does not deserve harsh judgment and heavy punishment.

But to spare the son from the law’s harshness, the father must make a big sacrifice beyond what he has offered.

I do not deny that this piece is political. But I veer away from partisanship as I declare my sympathy for the devil. (My apologies to the Rolling Stones.)

But before I explain why I have “sympathy for the devil,” let us critically examine the troubles of the Remulla family. How this issue is handled will also have repercussions, for better or for worse, on President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s government.

Illicit drug enforcers arrested Juanito Jose Remulla III, the son of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, through a “controlled delivery operation.” That is, instead of immediately confiscating the contraband at the port of entry, the operatives allowed the parcel containing 937 grams of high-grade cannabis delivered to the young Remulla. Under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, a person convicted of possessing 500 grams or more of marijuana faces the penalty of life imprisonment and a fine ranging from P500,000 to P10,000,000.

But the Philippines is way behind the curve with respect to drug rules and enforcement. We witness an increasing number of countries or societies accepting the use of marijuana and hallucinogens. Cannabis legalization is spreading all over the world. Among countries that have legalized the recreational use of cannabis are Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, South Africa, and neighboring Thailand.

In the US, a growing number of states have made recreational marijuana legal. At the federal level, US President Joe Biden has pardoned thousands convicted of mere possession of marijuana.

Other countries have limited the scope of legalization to medical use or have decriminalized drug use (not just cannabis consumption).

This shift from punitive action to a humane policy is a recognition of the failure of the violent war on drugs. Harm reduction is the emerging framework and strategy.

Indeed, it makes no sense that cannabis use is criminally punished, but the sale of alcohol and tobacco is legal. Yet, the scientific evidence shows that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis. (Our society should then be understanding towards the younger Remulla and sterner towards politicians who peddle tobacco and alcohol.)

Prohibition, as economic history has demonstrated, is costly and damaging to society. A “war on drugs” is less effective in curbing consumption, for this merely drives users underground. Worse, it abets corruption and violence (including extra-judicial killings especially during the time of Rodrigo Duterte).

Strong regulation — by distinguishing between hard and soft drugs and using a variety of tools to discourage consumption and apply harm-reduction strategies — is more effective to address substance abuse.

As pointed out by a Time article (Aug. 1, 2018), “Want to win the war on drugs? Portugal might have the answer.” What Portugal did in 2001 was to decriminalize the use of all drugs if individual consumption does not exceed a certain amount for 10 days. According to Portugal’s Health Ministry, 15 years after decriminalizing drug use, heroin use went down by 75% and death from overdose dropped by 85% although this increased slightly in the wake of an economic crisis. Overall, Portugal’s drug mortality rate is one of the lowest in the whole of Europe.

The explanation above should lead us to rethink our drug policy. It should also lead us to sympathize with the younger Remulla and many others accused of or convicted for using drugs.

Moreover, the Remulla controversy is an opportunity for Marcos Jr., to overturn Duterte’s failed war on drugs. Was it Winston Churchill who said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste?”

Turn the Remulla crisis into an opportunity to reform. Marcos Jr. in fact has already taken a different approach, having rejected the violence and brutality that characterized Duterte’s drug policy. He can take a bigger, bolder step by overhauling the Dangerous Drugs Act. At the minimum, decriminalize drug use. (Note that decriminalization is very different from legalization.)

But to do this, Marcos Jr. and the older Remulla must make a sacrifice. Specifically, Remulla, the father, must resign from his being Justice Secretary. And Marcos Jr. must encourage him to do so.

Secretary Remulla’s pronouncement that he will not intervene in his son’s case, nor will he influence the process is nonetheless insufficient. Similarly, Marcos Jr.’s statement that the calls for Remulla’s resignation “have no basis” is off the mark.

Those demanding Remulla’s resignation have raised the questions of delicadeza*and potential conflict of interest. Delicadeza and avoidance of conflict of interest are strong reasons why Secretary Remulla should resign.

I do not doubt Remulla’s statement to “let justice take its own course.” But this is objectively difficult to happen so long as he heads the Department of Justice. Remulla may not intervene, but his employees or subordinates will still regard him as their boss and will continue dealing with him even after the resolution of his son’s case. It is but natural for them to butter up and please their chief.

Here’s the dilemma. The law is the law, and the law is hard. The law must apply to the younger Remulla.

Aspiring for a new direction regarding drug policy, we want the harm reduction approach to prevail. That means giving the lightest sentence to Remulla if he is found guilty.

Prima facie, the case against the younger Remulla is strong. But having a light sentence is the way to go. Doing this sends a clear message that the whole of government will, from now on, lean towards harm reduction.

But giving Remulla, the son, a light sentence in a situation when the father remains Justice Secretary will arouse public suspicion and anger. That will lead to a political backlash.

The public will accuse the administration of having a double standard of justice. The poor are severely punished, even killed, in the course of the war on drugs. The son of a powerful politician gets a light sentence. But as I have argued, everyone charged with drug use or possession deserves humane treatment.

Upholding harm reduction means sparing anyone, including the younger Remulla, from heavy punishment. For Marcos Jr. and Secretary Remulla to show credibility in doing the right thing, they must make the ultimate sacrifice: Remulla, the father, must resign. It is for their own good.

Having himself acknowledged that he used drugs, Marcos Jr. has sympathy for drug users and understands the need for reform. At the proper time, Marcos Jr., using his political capital, can announce that henceforth, government will terminate Duterte’s war on drugs, amend the Dangerous Drugs Act, and adopt harm reduction.

This essay is written in memory of Edgardo Araneta Kalaw, Jr. He was a Filipino pioneer in championing harm reduction.

* Maintaining dignity by avoiding embarrassing situations and comporting oneself properly. A sense of propriety.