FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s cocaine story

Fast Backward by Antonio V. Figueroa

The Philippine Commission, on March 8, 1906, enacted a law restricting the sale of opium but it was effective only until March 1, 1908 when the import and use of the drug would be exclusively for medicinal purpose only. In between the date of approval and its expiry, however, reports of cocaine use started to surface.

“There is reason to believe that for some time… unscrupulous persons, probably through the medium of an organized corps of instructors, began systematically to teach the use of cocaine to opium habitues. There was great danger that one bad habit might thus be replaced by another which embodied also the necessary provisions restricting the use of cocaine, alpha or beta eucaine or of any derivative or preparation of these drugs or substances.”

Effective March 2, 1908, use of opium or cocaine outside medicinal reasons was deemed unlawful and their import could only be made by the government and sold only “to anyone not clearly entitled by law to purchase them.” Additionally,

“The possession of any opium pipe, hypodermic syringe, apparatus instrument, or paraphernalia for the use of opium or of any hypodermic syringe for the use of cocaine, alpha or beta eucaine, or any derivative or preparation of such drugs or substances, or any other apparatus especially designed for using any of the said drugs or substances in or on the human body, is deemed prima facie evidence that the person in possession of such pipe, hypodermic syringe, apparatus, instrument, paraphernalia, or articles, has used some one of such prohibited drugs or substances, or the drug or substance for the use of which such apparatus, instrument or paraphernalia are especially designed, without the prescription of a duly licensed and practicing physician, unless such prescription is produced by such person.”

On January 27, 1913, U.S. governor-general William Cameron Forces issued Executive Order No. 10 organized the Opium Committee “to destroy by burning in the boiler furnace of the division of cold storage, Bureau of Supply, or in the city crematory all opium, cocaine, and other drugs, and all instruments and apparatus for the unlawful of such drugs, seized and confiscated under the provisions of the laws of the Philippine Islands, unless such drugs, and so forth, are found by said committee to have a legitimate commercial value.”

In the third decade of American rule, the strict control in the entry of illegal drugs remained. A 1928 state report titled ‘Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs with Respect to the Philippine Islands’ stipulates the restrictions and sanctions in the import of “opium or its derivatives, cocaine, and other similar drugs except for medicinal purposes” and their ingress “regulated and supervised” by the internal revenue bureau.

The Philippine laws then carried an incarceration of 2-5 years or a fine of P300-P10,000 for cocaine-use violators. In case the offender was an alien, he was subject to deportation, especially if he was a recidivist (repeat offender).

The report specified that cocaine, a strong stimulant used as recreational drug, a powerful nervous system upper, and a local numbing agent then imported from Germany and Switzerland, is not a product of the Philippines and was limitedly used only for “medicinal and scientific purposes,” the same argument legislators raised in legalizing the use of marijuana.

Cocaine is derived from coca, a plant grown in South American as a cash crop, and as medicine in Andrean cultures. It is known worldwide for its psychoactive alkaloid cocaine. Between 1885 to 1903, the famous Coca-Cola soft drink used leaf extract from the plant in its products.

Interestingly, the report also carried a reminder: “There are no cocaine factories in the islands.” Prescription of drugs was done only by dentists, veterinarians, and pharmacists.

Davao region never found its name in the cocaine radar until 2009 when a large stash was found in Maersk Shipping Company container vans inside Sasa wharf. In response, the Bureau of Customs formed Task Force Coke to thoroughly probe the illegal drugs find. Around sixteen kilos (35 pounds) or 15,459.3 grams of cocaine, known among users as coke, were recovered.

The largest cocaine cache in the city did not happen until seven years later. Philippine Drug Enforcement Authority agents, on March 22, 2014, discovered 69,320.3-gram of high-grade cocaine, in a containerized cargo in Tibungco area valued at P508,677,600. Including those packs that were removed by unknown persons, the total haul was estimated at P500 million.

The discovery led authorities to claim the entry of large cocaine hauls has made Davao City a transshipment point for the United States and Europe. The Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel, which has gained toehold in the country, was suspected as behind the shipment.

Nearly four years later, thirty-nine bricks of cocaine worth P215 million were recovered in Barangay Santiago, Caraga, Davao Oriental, on February 24, 2019. The authorities suspected the illegal drugs to have come from the Medellin group of Columbia and were Australia-bound.