The global War on Drugs may have just hit an all-time low for hypocrisy. The president of the Philippines, whose government killed thousands of citizens in a campaign to halt illegal drug sales, just joked about using cannabis to stay alert on the job.
During an event held to recognize excellence within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Rodrigo Duterte bantered with the audience about how he manages his hectic schedule. “It’s a killing activity,” he said. “But at my age, I am not really bothered because I take marijuana to stay awake.”
The New York Times reported that the comment was met by “bursts of laughter.”
Not in the room, ostensibly, were the families of the 12,000-plus individuals who have been slain by law enforcement and citizen militias since June 2016, the beginning of Duterte’s administration. When he was first sworn in, Duterte told the residents of a low-income Manila neighborhood to “go ahead and kill” drug addicts. Duterte not only encouraged citizens to kill the addicted, he then followed that statement by adding that he wanted to kill addicts in order to take that pressure off families. As part of his anti-drug campaign (largely waged against the methamphetamine-use popular in the island nations), he expressed his own desire to end the life of dealers and has encouraged his political adversaries, the country’s Communist rebels, to do the same.
But his reference to personal drug use at the grueling annual conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was just a joke, Duterte told reporters. Still, he found a way to keep the yucks going. The New York Times reported this continued jocularity: “I use plastic marijuana,” the president said. This is not the first time the president has come under fire for his inappropriate humor.
Many made their distaste with the riff known. “If you are making a joke on an issue that has cost the lives of thousands of people in your drug war, then what does that say?” asked Gary Alejano, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives. “You also treat peoples’ lives as a joke.”
Those with a professional concern over the defense of human life were also left unmoved by the politician’s attempts at comedy. “This will definitely anger the families [of victims] even more,” Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch commented to Reuters. “There is a disconnect between what the president admitted to do and what the president said he will do to those who use drugs.”
The public killings of those suspected of buying or selling drugs were meant to have slowed a year ago when Duterte announced that foreign meddling (“bleeding hearts and media”) was making it impossible to carry out the bloody campaign. He later threatened its re-escalation, and eventually released inflated numbers of law enforcement deaths to justify the violence in the first place.
It will surprise few that Duterte’s bloody crusade had Donald Trump’s seal of approval. In a 2016 phone call, the man who was at the time the US president-elect praised Duterte’s resolve. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said, as captured in a leaked transcript of the leaders’ conversation.