Drugs and the Marcos Dictatorship: The Beginnings of the Philippines’ Punitive Drug Regime (1970–1975)

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This article identifies the early dictatorship of former President Ferdinand Marcos as a significant moment in drug policy in the Philippines, as well as the wider Southeast Asian region. Using methods of critical discourse analysis and the notion of episodic history, it shows how the Marcos government capitalized on the idea of a ‘drug menace’ and narrativized the ideal of ‘discipline’ to justify its authoritarian regime and establish a heavily prohibitionist and punitive drug paradigm in the country. Conflating drug addiction, activism, Communist subversion, and criminality into an amalgamated boogeyman, Marcos was able to construct a singular ‘enemy of the state’ that warranted the imposition of martial law and the launch of a drug war. This discourse was co-constructed with various actors and institutions across civil society, including the Catholic Church, academics, filmmakers, and the numerous drug-related nonprofits that proliferated during the time. By elucidating the sociopolitical construction of Marcos’ drug war, this article demonstrates how punitive drug policies take shape, garner popular support, and legitimize state efforts to move toward authoritarianism. Moreover, it situates drug wars not as exceptions to history, but as parts of a continuum determined by global policy currents and geopolitical influences; as co-constructed narratives built on enduring, popular attitudes toward drugs and drug use, and past drug regimes and drug wars. In the case of Marcos’ drug war—itself heavily molded by American forces at the time—it provided the foundations for the region’s prohibitionist drug ideologies and future drug wars, including the exceptionally violent war waged during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte (2016–2022).