The Explainer: Lies, damned lies, and drug statistics

A Vice documentary on shabu in the Philippines. Note the reliance on informants and the figures quoted by officials

The Explainer: Lies, damned lies, and drug statistics

by Manuel L. Quezon III


OPINION: Lies, damned lies, and drug statistics

The Explainer: By Manuel L. Quezon III

Posted at Oct 05 2016 06:22 AM

A Vice documentary on shabu in the Philippines. Note the reliance on informants and the figures quoted by officials.

In The Explainer last week, I took a look at the “War on Drugs,” and how it owed its origins to the Arroyo administration, which in many ways created the blueprint for the current efforts of the present administration. Starting in 2001, the government put in place a policy that considered illegal drugs as a threat to national security; and along the way, it pioneered methods and relied on officials, who continue to play a prominent role in the ongoing “War on Drugs.”

Which brings us to the title of this week’s entry: it comes from a saying attributed to Mark Twain who in turn said it came from the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” What he meant was that even a weak argument can gain strength from invoking an expert.

In the formulation of government policy, numbers matter: they are the foundation for policy. Other factors, such as intelligence, are taken into account, as well. When you mash together the two –data and intelligence—they can either reinforce or contradict each other.

But we should take into account a phenomenon among policymakers, particularly among CEO’s. It’s a simple phenomenon: with the huge number of facts and figures CEO’s have to absorb, it’s reasonable to assume that only a few will stick. That is why, as one businessman once told me –and I have observed this in government executives as well—you will often find CEO’s attached to particular numbers and stubbornly dismissive of other numbers that do not mesh with the ones that stick in their minds.

That being said, it seems to me that it would be helpful for all concerned to explore the official numbers as they exist, to see what they tell us –or not.

First of all, the impact of illegal drugs on our population. Here, I noticed last week that the numbers quoted from year to year varies. The President himself as one observer pointed out, has pegged the number of addicts at 3 million, 3.7 million, and 4 million.

Here are estimates on illegal drug users in our country comes from a survey put out on a regular basis by the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB). The DDB figures are an estimate of drug users (meaning, including casual users), and not addicts.

The figures are reported in turn by others, including the US State Department.

So what does the chart above mean? The first set is based on what the US State Department reports every year. So you can compare the figure for the Philippines, with those of some our neighbors, specifically Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

You will notice that the number seems fixed at 1.7 to 1.3 million. Why is this so? Either someone in the State Department was lazy, or they kept being fed the same figure by the DBB –because even in 2012, the DBB kept saying the estimate was 1.7 million. Then it became 1.3 million and didn’t budge.

I mention this because, if you look at the DBB actual reports and not the numbers reported by the US State Department, the DBB has estimated drug users in various years at 3.4 million (1999), 5.8 million (2002), 6.7 million (2004), 1.7 million (2008), 1.3 million (2012) respectively.

The most recent DBB estimate (for 2015, released on September 19, 2016) stands at 1.8 million.

To confuse you further, in the same report, the DBB estimates the number of Filipinos aged 10-69 years old who have used illegal drugs at least once in their lives stands at 4.8 million.

But at least this range of figures explains many of the numbers thrown around (including by the President): it really depends not only on your source, but the particular survey year results you looked at.

The problem is that none of these numbers represents addicts, specifically. Again: the DBB figures are all-inclusive, from the most minimal, occasional, use to outright addiction.

Still, the DBB figures also tell us something else –if use, however casual, is considered a sign of a larger problem. The biggest increase would have been from 1999-2004, when the estimate went from 3.4 million to 5.8 million to 6.7 million; while the period 2008-2016 saw the estimate range from 1.7 million to 1.3 million to 1.8 million. In other words: if DBB figures are your basis, then the height of the drug problem was from 1999-2004.

Before we move on, let’s take a look at a different set of information, which also comes from the DDB.

These figures tell us how many men and women went in for treatment from 2009-2015, and how many did so as outpatients, and how many were cases of readmission. Aside from these broad numbers, the DDB also provides a kind of profile of the drug abusers that end up in treatment facilities.

DDB’S PROFILE OF DRUG ABUSERS (Facility Based: Residential Facilities) CY 2015

• AGE: Mean age of 31 years

• SEX: Ratio of male and female 14:1

• CIVIL STATUS: Single 49.13%

• STATUS OF EMPLOYMENT: Unemployed 53.20%

• EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT: College Level 28.34%

• ECONOMIC STATUS: Average Monthly Family Income Php 10,172.00

• PLACE OF RESIDENCE: Urban (specifically NCR 43.89%)

• DURATION OF DRUG-TAKING: More than six (6) years

• NATURE OF DRUG-TAKING: Poly drug use (abuse of more than one (1) drug)

• DRUGS/SUBSTANCES OF ABUSE: Methamphetamine Hydrochloride (Shabu) Cannabis (Marijuana) Cocaine

What the above tells is that first of all, the figures are limited by where they came from: people specifically undergoing rehabilitation in facilities, most of which would be in urban centers to begin with. It is also a snapshot of a population in an advanced state of addiction, which does not include the young. So those who end up in government rehab are primarily poor, unemployed, under-educated men with a history of taking different kinds of drugs over several years.

Here’s another figure that is problematic. This time, it’s not from the DBB but the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). In the 2015 PDEA annual report, it said, “The National Capital Region remains to be the region with the most number of drug-affected barangays having 92.26% of its total barangay affected. It is followed by Regions 4A with 49.28%, of its barangays affected, and Region 7 with 48.82% of its barangays affected.” It does not specify what constitutes being “affected,” though you can assume it is a combination of finding marijuana plantations, meth labs, or where drug busts took place. But that is merely an assumption. For that reason, while on the surface the statistics are shocking (and even larger totals in terms of the total number of barangays nationwide supposed to be “affected”) it does not seem particularly precise.

Now let’s take a look at what’s been going on over the past few years. Here we rely on numbers from the PDEA and the Philippine National Police (PNP). PDEA, in the 2015 report I mentioned above, says “For the year 2015, shabu remains to be the main choice of drug abuse. As evident in the data on drug-related arrests, 95.47% is related to shabu. It is followed by marijuana at 4.29%.”

So let’s take a look at the drug haul:

The figures include gross and monthly average figures, and those for some neighboring countries for comparison. They seem respectable, overall, though uneven and spotty at times (see ephedrine for example). You find a jump in the drug haul from 2012 onwards after a dip from 2010-2011, which roughly corresponds to the years the DBB reported the number of users to have dipped, then started rising again.

And who catches the most, comparing PDEA and the PNP:

In the chart above, you see a difference between what PDEA hauled in, according to the US State Department (INCR) and its own annual reports (AR). In some cases, there is no difference: only the State Department report on PDEA figures is there; but sometimes (see 2011 and 2013 gross figures for methamphetamines for example) the PDEA State Department and Annual Report figures will vary slightly, or greatly.


The PNP for its part, reported its own figures. They seem spottier than PDEA’s, though a spike in confiscations can be seen 2013-2014. Compared to the PDEA’s, the figures from the AIDG (which cover the period 2010-June 2016) are slightly higher, but this is because the PDEA reported incomplete yearly tallies that cover specific periods (e.g., January-July, January-October), in addition to the longer time frame of the AIDG numbers.

Which underscores a basic insight from these figures. They do not reward cursory reading; careless reading can only create a policy calamity. So take a cue from the title of this piece, if there are lies, damned lies, and drug statistics, much of it can be pinned down on the careless examination of facts not least because they vary according to source.

The DDB’s fluctuates widely and seem to have stuck in policymaker’s heads. When it comes to numbers in the Philippines, then, the variety of sources –some reflecting more recent figures than others– can be confusing for the casual reader. Consider the following:

• The 2008 survey by the Dangerous Drugs Board or DDB estimated that there are 1.7 million users of illegal drugs in the country, which was cited in the 2009 and the 2016 International Narcotics Control Reports or INCR of the U.S. State Department. (This estimate is lower compared to the 3 million users frequently mentioned by President Duterte in media interviews.)

• Statistics from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency or PDEA were used in the INCR country reports, while numbers from the PNP’s Anti-Illegal Drugs Group or AIDG were cited in the recent series of PCIJ articles.

• Compared to the PDEA’s, the figures from the AIDG (which cover the period 2010-June 2016) are slightly higher, but this is because the PDEA reported incomplete yearly tallies that cover specific periods (e.g., January-July, January-October), in addition to the longer time frame of the AIDG numbers.

Or, imagine yourself a policymaker and trying to make sense of these three reports:

• Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 1, 2015: “PDEA tells Poe that its last survey in 2008 show there were 1.4 m drug users. Next survey – conducted every 4 yrs–is next year” (Tweet by @10avendano)

• Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 23, 2016: “Mr. Duterte said the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency had placed at 2 million the number of drug users and pushers in the country two years ago. He said the present estimate was 3.7 million.”

• Senate report: 3M drug users (2016 INCSR report only says 1.7M per DDB)?

So to try to put some order into this riot of facts and figures, let us end where we began last week. If the “War on Drugs” began in 2001, it is relevant to look at what was said, at the time, to be the benchmark for success of that war.

Whether one agrees with it or not, state policy says drugs are a problem. If on the whole we are at par with our neighbors in terms of the scale of the drug problem (and it is a problem), we seem to have been fairly active over the past decade about doing something about it (admittedly, on slim data, with only one figure from Indonesia for comparison, at least from the State Department reports).

What then, does state policy say about how the problem should be approached, and therefore, judged as far as success or failure are concerned?

President Arroyo in 2009 –when she announced she would be the anti-drug czarina—laid out the three components of an anti-drug campaign:

The war shall be waged from three fronts, a trinity against illegal drugs:

Law enforcement is the first component.

Judicial action is the second.

Policy-making will make up the third front of this all-out war, a comprehensive policy consisting of prevention, enforcement, rehabilitation and after-care.

If we look at this Trinity, we can break down what’s happened over the past six years as follows (the following is culled from, and paraphrases, the relevant reports).

First, in terms of law enforcement, including interdiction. These are culled from official reports, including those mentioned in the State Department annual summary per country.

• 2010

o a significantly less volume of methamphetamines was confiscated compared to the previous year (222 kg of meth in 2010 vis-à-vis 931 kg in 2009); no “industrial-type”, super meth laboratories were detected by the authorities, which can be attributed to the observation that transnational criminal groups have shifted to smaller-scale, “kitchen-type” meth labs that are easier to conceal

o the significantly higher volume of cocaine seizures compared to the preceding year was due to the discovery of a Chinese vessel off the coast of Eastern Samar, carrying 1.9 MT of South American cocaine

o according to the DDB, 8% of drug cases are dismissed before going to trial, 7% result in conviction, 8% result in acquittal, and 76% remain unresolved; drug cases are often dismissed due to technicalities such as irregularity or illegality of arrest, non-appearance of witnesses, inconsistent testimonies of witnesses, mishandling of evidence, and unreliable police laboratories

• 2011

o increased interagency cooperation under the Aquino administration led to a 45% rise in counternarcotics operations; 9,850 operations were conducted from January to October 2011, which is higher than the 8,452 operations in the same period in 2010

• 2013

o the 2013 UN Transnational Crime Report estimated that the Philippines had 960,000 meth users or 2.1% of the adult population aged 16 to 64—one of the highest rates in Asia

o the INCR noted that a small but increasing number of foreigners are reported to be using the rehabilitation centers in the country, possibly due to high quality counselors and low costs relative to overseas treatment

o the 2014 SONA Technical Report noted that,

“Campaign against Illegal Drugs. In 2013, PDEA and other law enforcement agencies, conducted 11,474 anti-drug operations, which resulted in the arrest of 9,162 persons, confiscation of illegal drugs with total estimated value of P5.43 billion, and filing of 10,502 cases in court.”

• 2014

o Due to budget constraints, no new enforcement officers were recruited by the PDEA, while 16 agents were removed from service due to offenses like corruption and grave misconduct; these could explain the increase of only five agents in PDEA’s roster between 2013 and 2015.

• 2015

o According to the PDEA, 8,629 barangays (or approximately 20% of the country’s villages) reported drug-related crimes

Second, in terms of judicial action:

• According to PDEA, “From 2002 to 2012, a total of 80,580 drug cases were filed nationwide. Out of this number, only 14,087 cases ,or 17.48%, were resolved, while the remaining 66,493 cases, or 82.52%, are pending in courts. The resolved cases are broken down as follows: 17.48% conviction; 26.71% dismissal; 43.64% acquittal” ?

• The Department of Justice in 2011 reconstituted its Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Task Force, to conduct preliminary investigations and prosecutions of drug cases and ensure local politics do not influence the prosecution of drug cases.

• President Aquino in 2013 signed Republic Act No. 10586 or the Anti-Drunk and Drugged Driving Act, which penalizes drivers under the influence of dangerous drugs, among others.

• The DDB’s “Peer Group Against Drugs” program expanded its membership from 36,000 members in 2011, to 60,000 members in 2013.

• The NAIA Inter-Agency Anti-Drug Interdiction Task Group was formally inaugurated (with U.S. support) in 2013, while five more anti-drug interdiction task groups were formed at major airports (including Clark International Airport) in 2014.

Third, in terms of policy, including legislation, which sets policy:

• Legislation was amended in 2014 to make anti-drug operations, specifically in the chain of custody requirements, more realistic and simple to law enforcers, and prevent widespread dismissal and acquittal of drug suspects. The amendment boosted the morale and motivation of counternarcotics officers.

• The PDEA in 2015 has 16 regional laboratories that employ 28 forensic chemists, two laboratory aides, and 18 laboratory technicians, and 34 drug detecting canines (K9) deployed in 13 regional offices.

What about now? The Philippine National Police has made the case for itself twice to date, before the Senate.

By its own measure, the PNP says people are safer now than they were a year ago.


But of course the main area of public concern is the amount of killings, as the slide below points out.



But it would be better if you, the reader, review the PNP presentations for yourself: 


Senate Hearing, EJK by TADIDM

Just some quick observations on the slides, particularly from the latest presentation:

1. How were they able to get a daily average if period is until December 31, 2016? (see slide 5)

2. While daily average of robbery and carnapping fell by 50.5% and 52.7, respectively (from July 2015-June 30, 2016 to July 1 to August 7, 2016), the daily average of robbery increased from 39 to 53 on week 6: even after daily average of murder (assuming they’re EJKs) increased from 35 to 39.(Although, can carnapping statistics even be relevant to drug-related crime stats when one might assume they’re another kind of crime syndicate or activity altogether?)

4. Trends: murder increased 62.4% –while robbery dropped only 29% and homicide cases even went up 13.3%

5. Index crimes distribution data cover both previous and current administration; one wishes the Senate asked to compare rape statistics for the previous and present administrations, since rape is always used to justify EJKs.

6. Why are there AFP personnel involved in anti–drug ops?

But these are just observations. Thing is, the PNP having to be hauled before the Senate, and having to explain itself concerning body counts, tells us how different the landscape is today from what it was, a year ago.

Let me pause at this point, to return, briefly to the figures we saw near the beginning on the number of people in rehab.

Last year, the DDB claimed, “An increase of thirty percent (29.86%) admission compared from the previous year was noted which may be brought about by the following: Intensified advocacy program of the government to convince families to love and support those who have drug problems and need to undergo treatment and rehabilitation; the continuous improvement of treatment and rehabilitation programs, methodologies, facilities and service; and conduct of In- house seminars and dialogues to better serve those who need interventions.”

But of course the situation has now changed, since the emphasis of the authorities is different. Which brings me to my final set of points.

Last night, addressing mayors from throughout the country, President Duterte said it would be akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul, to divert funds from other national needs, to rehabilitation for drug addicts (yet earlier that day, government television had Tweeted a photo of proposed drug rehabilitation camps to be established in military reservations). His views on judicial action, furthermore, basically boiled down to what he announced was his advice to policemen who might face cases due to the ongoing war on drugs: you should invoke your right to be silent, he said, referring to Congress and human rights investigators. As for judicial proceedings, he repeated what he has often said before: should cases end badly for policemen, he would freely grant pardons.

By the standards set by President Arroyo, then, President Duterte is not a Trinitarian. His focus is too well known to have to go into, here. But one point has to be made: precisely because his strategy is to neutralize, by one way or another, the network of distribution of drugs and eliminate the lieutenants on whom drug kingpins rely, his strategy relies overwhelmingly on intelligence.

He admits intelligence has been flawed.

Just yesterday, the PNP pledged it would “revalidate” its intelligence on Tanauan City Mayor Antonio Halili.

He has also asked for an additional six months for the “War on Drugs,” though often mentions the problem may outlast his presidency. Still, he vows total support for the police.

He says he recognizes the international nature of the problem and that he will take it up with China (see China believes it has nothing to do with the Philippines’ drug problem, no matter what Duterte says).

Where does this leave the public? The body count remains the top of mind issue. So much so that over the weekend, the administration had to soothingly suggest that a new era was nigh:

“We encourage everyone to join the anti-drugs campaign of the Government as we now enter the second phase which includes treatment and rehabilitation and education and counseling of drug dependents,” a Palace statement in response to the looming Ateneo-LaSalle game said. But as I’ve mentioned, yesterday the President showed no definitive signs of being on board this new phase –how can he? He already asked for a deadline extension.

The prospects of a quick war turning into a drawn-out one, involving a possible intensification of the campaign, thus continues to spread unease, as a recent brisk discussion between cops and homeowners suggests. A comment in a Facebook conversation provides this insight into what transpired (I will not link to the actual comment to spare the privacy of the commenter):

“A bit of background… The meeting was attended by Vice Mayor Belmonte, top police officers of QC, and officers of the so-called “gated subdivisions” of QC’s third district. Topping the agenda was the proposed protocol for Oplan Tokhang’s implementation in the subdivisions. Three or four of the associations did not want their areas visited. The proposal about “drug-free” stickers came from them and a couple of the groups who were worried about the effect of the visits on the price of their real estate. And these triggered the discussion and disagreement, aka clash. Majority of the attendees approved the protocol in principle.”

And here lies my final point. If intel is one problem, then the continuing lack of information for the broader public is another (setting aside the larger question of human rights).

The other day, in a forum in the Ateneo de Manila on the drug situation, a person in attendance asked, since details on how Operation Tokhang is carried out are vague to public, if a person ends up on the list, how would one go about asking to be removed from it? At first the answer was vague, and eventually, the answer was, talk to the Senior Police Intelligence Officer. What about rehabilitation plans? No uniform rehab/recovery plans. Another follow-up question was, since the source of illegal drugs includes outside sources, has the government addressed smuggling through border patrols? The answer was, not yet. It will be covered by Tokhang Program II.

What that is, or when it will take place, is yet another great unknown.

(I would like to thank the following for their assistance in going through the data and in the preparation of tables and charts: Cocoy Danao, Rachel Peralta, Adrian Baccay, and Marco Harder.)


Additional Readings:

See President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Letter of Instruction No. 1, s. 2001, mandating a “National Anti-Drug Program of Action.”

See the PNP’s Investigative Directive 2016-12: Additional Policies and Guidelines in the Conduct of PNP Anti-Illegal Drugs Campaign Plan: “Double Barrel.”

See Bernard Ong’s Facebook post looking at the official statistics.

See PCIJ’s Big kill of small fry, puny drugs haul, defies PNP rules;   Duterte’s drug war snares 20,860 women ‘surrenderees’; Epicenters of fatalities in the war on drugs; Seized by cops, too: Shabu, Ecstasy, acetone, chloroform, muriatic acid; War on drugs: No EO signed by DU30, a chaos of numbers.

Drug Abuse Prevention Among Children Philippine Initiatives by Cornelio G. Banaag Jr., MD and Edwin Daiwey contains a very useful overview of the development of anti-drug policy in the Philippines, and insights into treatment issues concerning children. 

See also The Explainer for February 16, 2009

An overview of American anti-drug policy can be found in this document in the Stanford University website.

Moving forward, the question of how nations should tackle drugs was tackled in the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) 2016; the opening salvo of this effort was an op-ed piece by Kofi Annan (February 22, 2016): Lift the Ban! Kofi Annan on Why It’s Time To Legalize Drugs; also, see this op-ed by Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia: As Colombia’s leader, I know we must rethink the drugs war. You may remember that he came to Manila for Apec as a guest.

You can also consult the sources of official data used above, as follows:

The Philippine National Police PPT presentations to the Senate:


Senate Hearing, EJK by TADIDM 10.3.2016

International Narcotics Control Report (US State Department, 1999-present)  

Country Report on the Philippines – 2016 

Country Report – Malaysia – 

Country Report – Thailand – 

Country Report – Indonesia – 


Philippines – 

Thailand – 

Malaysia – 

Indonesia – 


Philippines – 

Thailand – 

Malaysia – 

Indonesia – 


Philippines – 

Thailand – 

Malaysia – 

Indonesia – 


Philippines – 

Thailand – 

Malaysia – 

Indonesia – 


Philippines – 

Thailand – 

Malaysia – 

Indonesia – 


Philippines – 

Thailand – 

Malaysia and Indonesia – 


UNODC – Trends and Patterns of Amphetamine-type Stimulants and New Psychoactive Substances (2015)


UNODC – Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment: Amphetamine-type s mulants and new psychoac ve substances (2014)


UNODC – Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Challenges for Asia and the Pacific  (2015)

Recent Statistics and Trend Analysis of the Illicit Drug Market


World Drug Report


Drug Prevention, Treatment and Care 

Asia’s ATS Epidemic: The Challenges for China


PDEA Annual Reports


2011 Executive Summary 

2011 National Anti-Drug Accomplishments 

2012 Executive Summary 

2012 National Drug Accomplishments Part 1:

2012 National Drug Accomplishments Part 2:

2012 National Drug Accomplishments Part 3:

2012 National Drug Accomplishments Part 4:




Dangerous Drugs Board

2010 – 

2011 – 

2012 – 

2013 – 

2014 – 

2015 – 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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