Race, Public Health, and Drug Control in the American Philippines

Eva Ward discusses the contradictions and assumptions behind America’s ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines

The “War on Drugs” of the United States evokes images of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and DEA-backed armed conflicts with cartels in Latin America. Despite these more recent associations, the American War on Drugs actually began over a hundred years ago, thousands of miles away from the United States. The victory of the United States in the Spanish-American War in 1898 established an American colonial presence in the Philippines. In keeping with the imperialist thought of the time, the goal of the colonial state was essentially to remake the Philippines in the image of the United States. One policy area that came under particular scrutiny was the regulation of the sale and consumption of opium.

Under the Spanish, opium was controlled by a monopoly system under which contracts to distribute opium solely to the Chinese population of the Philippines were auctioned to the highest bidder. Governor-General William Taft’s proposal to reinstate the Spanish opium monopoly system was defeated by primarily religious opposition. The Philippine Opium Committee was subsequently established in 1903 in order to review various methods of regulating opium in Southeast Asia. Missionary Bishop of Manila Charles Henry Brent, who had been instrumental in preventing the passage of Taft’s proposal, formed part of the investigative committee, along with Major Edward Carter, the first Commissioner of Public Health in the American Philippines, and Dr. Jose Albert, a prominent Filipino physician. An alliance between religion and public health in the matter of narcotics consumption in the Philippines was thus established very early in the American colonial era.

‘Two Chinese men, on narcotics in opium den’ c1909. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-106914

As part of the Opium Committee’s report, a survey of conditions in the Philippines regarding opiates consumption was carried out. This survey found that “the percentage of smokers in the entire population is possibly one-third of one per cent…the percentage of Filipino smokers being slightly more than one-eighth of one percent.”[i]  The Committee therefore admitted that “at the present time the use of opium…does not constitute so grave a social calamity in the Philippines as it does in the neighboring territories.”[ii] However, they were quick to note the necessity of ensuring “the Filipino peoples [are] preserved from what would be as disastrous to them as fire to the forest; for an individual or a people with a relatively low degree of vitality suffers palpably from the inroads of a vice like this more than those whom nature has more richly endowed with powers of resistance.”[iii]

This idea that Filipinos were by nature weaker and thus more susceptible to the effects of narcotics was not only influential but persistent. Major Anderson’s successor as Commissioner of Public Health, Victor Heiser, described his ambition in the Philippines as the transformation of “the Filipinos from the weak and feeble race they were into the strong, healthy, and enduring race that they might become.”[iv] Prevention of access to drugs was essential for this mission. In contrast with the “weak and feeble” Filipinos, the Chinese were viewed as having stronger constitutions and therefore were supposedly less affected by opium and other narcotics. The Philippine Opium Committee noted this belief among members of the medical profession but also claimed permitting Chinese access to opium was tantamount to allowing Filipino consumption. The committee report stated that “there is no reason to suppose that prohibition would be effective among the Filipinos, if permission should be the rule among the Chinese. The process of contamination…would be unerring.”[v]

Dr. Victor Heiser, c.1913. Library of Congress, LC-H261- 3030

In order to prevent this “process of contamination,” the Philippine Opium Committee’s recommendations consisted of a gradual end to the monopoly system. Over the next three years, legal opium sales should be gradually reduced. Chinese males over the age of 21 who smoked opium should be registered and issued licenses to smoke. Following the end of the three years, opiates and cocaine would be entirely prohibited except for medicinal use. These recommendations were passed by the US Congress in March 1905.[vi] Thus the dominant narrative of the opium consumer in the Philippines was solidified in legislation: adult, male, and of Chinese ethnic origin.

In the following years, Americans would cling to this narrative. Heiser claimed that, following prohibition taking effect in 1908, “the price of opium promptly went up, which made it prohibitive for Filipino purses.”[vii] A 1927 report by the government of the Philippines claimed that “The majority of opium smokers in the Philippine Islands are Chinese. Few Filipinos have been induced by Chinese friends to use opium either for smoking purposes or in the form of pills to alleviate pain.”[viii] This claim was repeated verbatim in later reports, and authorities attempted to substantiate it by providing statistics on the ethnicity of individuals charged with violating the opium ban. In 1927, out of 591 charges for violations of the opium ban, 72% of defendants were Chinese and only 28% Filipino.[ix] The following year however, only 66% of defendants were Chinese and the proportion of Filipinos charged with violations was 34%.[x] By 1932, the ratio had shifted again to 39% of defendants listed as Filipino and 60.7% as Chinese, an increase of 11% in the proportion of Filipinos charged with opium ban violations in just five years.[xi] Accordingly, the reports now stated “very few Filipinos smoke or eat opium. The majority of opium smokers in the Philippine Islands are Chinese.” A further caveat asserted that “almost all of the natives arrested were found illegally possessing opium [i.e. not in the act of smoking] and were charged accordingly.”[xii]

A possible explanation for why the US was so reluctant to abandon a hegemonic narrative of drugs consumption in the Philippines in the face of increasingly contradictory circumstances is that political expediency eventually had as much influence in formulating and enforcing drug regulations as beliefs about race. If only the tiny proportion of Chinese residents of the Philippines were overwhelmingly responsible for the supply and consumption of drugs, then the difficult task of the American authorities in enforcing the opium ban was considerably simplified. Legal proceedings from the American colonial era nonetheless illustrate a more complex situation than the official narrative allowed. Supreme Court cases from the Philippines throughout the first half of the twentieth century describe narcotics as being supplied and consumed by both Chinese and Filipino individuals, who frequently collaborated on smuggling drugs into the islands.

One of the largest drug busts for smuggling was not by a Chinese or Filipino defendant but rather an American, as seen in the 1909 prosecution of Louis T. Grant for illegal importation of drugs into the Philippines. Grant was charged and convicted of feloniously importing into the Philippine Islands from Hong Kong 210 kgs of prepared opium and 11 kgs of cocaine and morphine.[xiii] Grant was, of course, far from the only individual charged with violating the opium ban. In 1911, Valeriano de los Reyes and Gabriela Esguerra, both native Filipinos of Spanish descent, were charged with possession of a “considerable quantity of morphine,” the former being acquitted and the latter convicted.[xiv] In 1912, Pow Sing and Simeon Vega, who were Chinese and Filipino respectively, were convicted of collaborating to smuggle morphine from Hong Kong into the Philippines.[xv] The 1916 case of Lim Tiong Tim and Ignacio Aztigarraga proved to be another example of collaboration between Chinese and Filipino distributors. Tim and Aztigarraga were also charged with smuggling morphine from Hong Kong into the Philippines, this time through the postal service. Both were convicted.[xvi] Several decades later in 1947, Rafaela Castro, who operated a pharmacy, was charged with illegally possessing large quantities of cocaine and morphine. Castro argued she did have a legal permit issued by the Collector of Internal Revenue for the drugs seized from her, “with the exception of 70 tablets of morphine sulphate which, she claims, had been left in her drugstore by an unknown Chinaman shortly before the detectives arrived on October 30, 1947.”[xvii] Despite the well-documented insistence by authorities upon the Chinese being primarily responsible for illegal narcotics smuggling, her defense of an “unknown Chinaman” being responsible for the illicit substances found in her possession did not prove satisfactory and she was convicted.

Prisoners in Postigo Prison, Manila, Philippine Islands, 1901. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-137901

Throughout the American colonial era, the official narrative of consumption of opium and other drugs portrayed the Chinese community as the suppliers and consumers of illicit narcotics; in short, the perpetrators of the ‘opium habit.’ This necessitated action on the part of the American colonial state in the Philippines, particularly the public health apparatus, in order to prevent the ‘contamination’ of the Filipino majority by the Chinese minority’s use of narcotics. This simplistic narrative was nonetheless contradicted by the colonial society described in government reports and legal proceedings, in which narcotics consumers and suppliers alike could be found among all social classes and ethnic groups. In more recent years, the enforcement of prohibitory drugs policies in the Philippines and challenges to the dominant paradigm of prohibition in the US call for renewed scrutiny of the racialized American colonial legacy of drug control and its consequences for human rights, at home and abroad.

Eva Ward is a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde and the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, researching drug policy in the colonial Philippines from 1890-1942 as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded project The Asian Cocaine Crisis: Pharmaceuticals, consumers & control in South and East Asia, c.1900-1945. Twitter: @EvaWardStrath



[i] Report of the Philippines Opium Committee, 1905 (Manila: Bureau of Printing) 44.

[ii] Philippines Opium Committee 44-45.

[iii] Philippines Opium Committee 41.

[iv] Victor Heiser, A Doctor’s Odyssey, (Jonathan Cape Ltd 1936, 1937) 47.

[v] Heiser 176.

[vi] An Act to amend the tariff laws of the Philippines, and for other purposes, 1905 (Division of Printing, Washington D.C.)

[vii] Heiser 177.

[viii] Report by the Government of the United States of America with respect to the Philippine Islands for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1928, on the Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs (Division of Printing: Washington D.C., 1928) 4-5.

[ix] Report by the Government of the United States of America with respect to the Philippine Islands for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1928, on the Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs (Division of Printing: Washington D.C., 1928).

[x] Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs with Respect to the Philippine Islands for the Six Months’ Period from July 1- December 31 1928 and for the Calendar Year 1929 (Division of Printing: Washington D.C., 1929).

[xi] Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs with Respect to the Philippine Islands for the Calendar Year 1932 (Division of Printing: Washington D.C., 1932).

[xii] Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs with Respect to the Philippine Islands for the Calendar Year 1932 (Division of Printing: Washington D.C., 1932) 5.

[xiii] The United States v. Louis T. Grant and William Kennedy (29 December 1910) G.R. No. L-5786 (Supreme Court of the Philippines, 1910).

[xiv] The United States v. Valeriano de los Reyes and Gabriela Esguerra (16 November 1911) G.R. No. L-6800 (Supreme Court of the Philippines, 1911).

[xv] The United States v. Pow Sing et al. (12 November 1912) G.R. No. L-7424 (Supreme Court of the Philippines, 1912).

[xvi] The United States v. Ignacio Aztigarraga (alias Sia See Send) and Lim Tiong Tim (21 September 1917) G.R. No. 12596 (Supreme Court of the Philippines, 1917).

[xvii] Rafaela G. Castro v. Jose P. Bengzon, City Fiscal of Manila, Ambrosio Lorenzo, Manuel de la Fuente, Manila Chief of Police, and Bibiano L. Meer, Collector of Internal Revenue (20 Seprember 1948) G.R. No. L-1985 (Supreme Court of the Philippines, 1948).

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