How many Filipino druggies?” was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 27, 2017.

According to the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), 1.8 million in 2015. “Wrong,” pronounced President Duterte, who had been saying “4 million” even before his election, and summarily sacked DDB Chair Benjamin Reyes without explaining why 4 million was the correct number.

Actually, according to Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Director General Isidro Lapeña, the real number is 4.7 million. This estimate was helpful to the President, but provoked the inevitable question: How did the number rise over two and a half times during a year when the Duterte war on drugs was driving the surrender of over a million drug abusers and killing off thousands of them?

Through the letter of Deputy Director General Ricardo Quinto, PDEA ventured to explain the “exact science” behind its figures. It pointed out that DDB based its estimate on a nationwide survey of 5,000 respondents 10-69 years old. In contrast, PDEA relied on the Philippine National Police’s “Oplan Tokhang” visits to nearly 7.8 million households, about 34 percent of the total number nationwide.

Tokhang compelled the surrender of about 1.27 million “drug personalities,” or at least one drug user/pusher in 16 percent of the households visited. The large number of households covered by the PNP and the resulting harvest of surrenders apparently gave PDEA the confidence to project from the Tokhang sample the incidence of drug abuse nationwide at 4.7 million.

How valid is the conclusion that the drug abuse in the country mirrors the proportions discovered among the Tokhang households? The validity depends on how well the Tokhang sample represents the larger population. More critical than sample size is the rigor of the random selection process, which ensures that the sample and the findings from it are representative of the larger community. Were the Tokhang households selected at random, so that any household in the country had an equal chance of being chosen?

Much controversy has surrounded the issue of how households were selected for inclusion in the Tokhang visits and what registration in the “surrender” list means. What is clear is that the PDEA sample was not random and not representative. The target Tokhang households were apparently already suspected of harboring drug addicts. Stressing the accuracy of its information, PDEA noted that those who surrendered “have actual faces and profiles stored in the PNP’s databases.”

These databases may serve legitimate police purposes, but the Tokhang sample cannot provide a scientific basis for estimating nationwide drug addiction. A projection of the cancer incidence in the Philippines would be similarly flawed if we selected the respondents only from the population of hospital patients.

Other unsupported PDEA statements are unhelpful, such as the claim that 47 percent of Philippine barangays are “affected” by illegal drugs. What does “affect” mean and how do we measure its intensity? The failure of government authorities to distinguish between drug user, addict and pusher is also problematic. There are different levels of addiction, and the laws themselves make a distinction between using and trafficking drugs. Without a clarification of these terms, drug addiction numbers will remain questionable.

We need more explanation of the numbers from DDB, President Duterte and PDEA. For an issue with life-and-death implications, this is hardly academic nitpicking. A credible estimate of gross numbers is critical to the validation of the Duterte war on drugs. Is the country truly a narco-state in the grip of an existential drug crisis? Experts agree that we face a drug problem but nowhere near the scale confronting countries commonly branded narco-states.

Our response to the drug problem must be proportional to its scale, lest the cure inflict more damage than the disease. The same principle should apply to the declaration of martial law throughout Mindanao.

PDEA deserves credit for declaring its willingness to “submit to any Senate or congressional probe … to clarify the ‘real’ statistics.” We urgently need this clarification to begin a sober assessment of the rationale, context and consequences of the Duterte war on drugs.

Edilberto de Jesus
Edilberto de Jesus is a former Secretary of Education. He is also professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.