NOTE: This chapter is heading into our book. If you’ve got anything to add, PLEASE leave a comment – if it’s appropriate, I will include it in the next edition.
If you happen to be to be an alcoholic or drug addict, you just might find the Philippines to be both your personal little Heaven AND private little Hell – Heaven because of the low cost of booze and drugs and Hell because there is little in place here to regulate an addict’s daily use. One of the reasons that we are always droning on about how important it is for expats anywhere to have something to do (a passion and purpose) is partly due to the topic at hand. In my time here, I have seen the results of addicts here whiling away their empty days with either alcohol, drugs or both. Just from its very nature, the end result isn’t pretty, bringing about economic ruin, physical decline, spiritual vacancy and finally – after the final loss of dignity – either a realization that things have to change or they are going to continue downhill to the very end. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying this not out of doom and gloom or from a perspective of teetotalling higher ground but out of simple experience: If you are an active alcoholic or drug addict in the Philippines I believe that your run will typically be much shorter and painful than what one might experience in the West.
That said, let’s look at some of the reasons for which I am forwarding my hypothesis:
The cost of locally produced alcoholic beverages in the Philippines is remarkably low compared to the majority of Western nations with beers costing around 50 cents to a dollar and liters of harder alcohol (Tanduary and Emperador) only costing about three dollars (or less). And if you are truly on a budget, you can pick up homemade tuba (coconut wine) for only a fraction of that. Conversely, Western liquors such as Hennessey, Johnnie Walker, Seagrams and the like are more expensive in the Philippines due to tariffs and shipping costs. These finer liquors are usually reserved for casual drinkers, however. Unless a drunk is filthy rich, you usually won’t see him purchasing cases of Johnnie Walker Black Label. Instead, gents who are serious about their drinking in the Philippines will usually gravitate towards cheap high-test Red Horse beer (jokingly referred to as “Cheval Rouge”) or Tanduay rum.
Price-wise, drugs are fairly inexpensive in the Philippines. (The other costs of their use, however, might be well beyond the budget of the average expatriate.) Marijuana is ridiculously cheap and plentiful here but reports as to its poor quality (‘schwag weed’) are somewhat common. Methamphetamine (‘shabu’) is also less expensive than it is in the Wests and has long been an extremely serious health issue here in the Republic. Other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy are less common outside of urban areas and correspondingly more expensive, but synthetic opioids like Nubain are a popular drug to inject oneself with here. So, with those options, most addicts will eventually shift over to the most common available drug, shabu, which is an absolute nightmare and pretty much the quickest and ugliest descent into chemically-induced insanity one can imagine.
Distance from Family and Friends
Contributing to low cost of drugs and alcohol as a danger to the addict expat is the sudden absence of external controls such as family and friends that the isolated expatriate experiences while in the Philippines. Without the usual social checks and balances that are conferred through these relationships, an active addict here quickly loses all semblance of objectivity – bereft of a compassionate “eternal lens” to provide him with feedback on where he is at, the addiction gains yet another advantageous foothold over the addict and the progression from good to bad to ugly continues along on its most merry way.
Lack of Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation and detoxification centers do exist in the Philippines, but they are expensive (and usually out of the reach of most Filipinos) and possessed of long waiting lists. Keep in mind that drug addicts and alcoholics are also a long way from their Western health insurance policies to pay for any type of local rehab program even if it was covered. Similarly, there are not emergency services teams in most areas of the Philippines that have the resources to deal with addicts in serious, life-threatening crisis. Instead of getting care as they would in the West, they are likely to suffer the ongoing consequences of the dangerous street life here up to and including, death.
Drug laws are extremely strict in the Philippines, creating an even greater danger to any visiting foreigner. Just the simple cultivation of marijuana here (no matter how little) can result in a life sentence in a decrepit and miserable Philippines prison. Also keep in mind that some drug violations have “no bail” stipulations which means the charged individual could be sitting for years in a Philippine jail awaiting trial. Philippine police are often on the lookout for drug offenders and a Westerner with an addiction sticks out like a sore thumb and is a remarkably easy target. Philippine prisons are rough and once in, your chances of getting out are rather slim. If you’ve ever seen the television show, “Locked Up Abroad,” you’ll understand what we are saying.
Here’s a link to a Philippines episode of Locked Up that you might find interesting:
No drunk driving enforcement
Drunk driving laws exist all across the Philippines, but the actual enforcement of them is pretty abysmal. In the three-plus decades that our book’s authors have only seen one dedicated DUI checkpoint, and that was in the National Capital Region. Smaller municipalities can’t claim the same: The city of Dumaguete on Negros Oriental, for example, just received a dozen breathalyzers in October of 2015 – they proudly posted them up on their Facebook page but they have yet to be put into use. Foreigners are very aware of this soon after arriving in the Philippines, and without that external control, a number of them drive after drinking – sometimes with terrible consequences.
Loneliness and Isolation
Exacerbating the negative consequences of lack of support systems such as family and friends and access to rehabilitative medical care is the actual loneliness that an expatriate feels in a foreign nation. Not knowing the language, limited socialization (expats tend to be rugged individualist and rather reserved) and simply our appearance (either abnormally black or white and uniquely “foreign” as compared to the typical Filipino) makes one pretty much feel like an outsider. Even in today’s world of digital connectiveness via Skype and Google Voice, such loneliness can lead to depression which is fueled in turn by lack of adequate medical care (mental health treatment). And since so many addicts are already dealing with organic or situational mental health challenges, the loneliness and isolation of constantly feeling like a stranger in a strange land can often lead to an increase in substance abuse.
The intent of this blog post is not to lecture the prospective (or present) expat on how evil drugs and alcohol are. Instead, it should simply be seen as a warning as to having such issues can have more dire consequences in the Philippines than in the West. Since nearly every person around the world has had to personally deal with addiction issues among families and friends, most people know that it is a word wide and equal opportunity oppressor. Given the unique conditions of living so far away from one’s native home brings a whole set of new issues to the equation, greatly exacerbating (in this author’s view) the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction among foreigners living in the Philippines.