It was his principal campaign promise, and no one expects any letup in the war on drugs under the watch of President Duterte. The President made this crystal clear in his third State of the Nation Address the other day. “The war against illegal drugs is far from over,” he said, adding that “it will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began.”

In fact the war on drugs has been recalibrated following police excesses and gross human rights violations that claimed the lives even of teenagers and young children. Drug-related killings continue under new Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde, but the numbers are markedly down. There has also been a notable absence of corpses turning up with their heads wrapped in plastic and packing tape and their hands bound behind their backs.

PNP officials have also touched base with human rights officials and the Catholic clergy to discuss the conduct of the anti-crime campaign, apart from the recent spate of killings targeting priests. Fighting crime need not be incompatible with respect for human rights, according to the new PNP leadership.

There’s big money in drugs, and traffickers don’t fight nice. They rarely hesitate to kill anti-narcotics cops and civilians suspected to be stool pigeons. All countries find it a stiff challenge to keep the anti-drug campaign from turning into a dirty war.

Still, it’s not impossible to take a more nuanced and humane approach to the drug problem, particularly in dealing with substance abuse. There are positive indications that the PNP is trying to steer its members in this direction.

More attention is also being given to the social causes of the drug menace. Greater emphasis is being given to rehabilitation and giving drug abusers a second chance. Thousands of drug personalities have surrendered.

President Duterte can talk tough, and there are people who will appreciate seeing his war having a chilling effect on drug traffickers. After two years of waging a brutal war, however, lessons have been learned, and should guide those fighting the drug menace against committing the same abuses and mistakes.

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