The shackles of shabu

About 10 per cent of the population of the Philippines use the potent drug.

people & power


As part of its Asia series, People & Power investigates the use of shabu – a pure and potent form of amphetamine – in the Philippines.

Filmmaker Martin Butler travelled to the Philippines to investigate the impact the drug is having on communities there. He visited shabu dens in some of the country’s poorest slums and spoke to those who use it and deal in it as well as those fighting a losing battle to stamp it out.

One of the fastest growing drug problems in the world is with “ice” or crystal meth. It is known as shabu in the Philippines where official estimates suggest that about seven million people – almost 10 per cent of the population – use the drug.

A deal of shabu costs about $3.

Once confined to the urban middle class, it is now the drug of choice in the country’s desperately poor slums and suburbs. Users go to shabu dens where they smoke the drug, although it can also be injected, snorted or dissolved in water. They stay at the dens all night playing on illegal gambling machines. 

The drug keeps users awake and, as it is often taken at night, that can impact on work or school the next day unless more is taken. It is a pattern that encourages addiction and health authorities are concerned about the long-term repercussions of the explosion in use.

Life sentence

Martin Butler travelled to the slums of the
Philippines to investigate shabu use there

More than 60 per cent of the world’s consumption of crystal meth is in Asia and much of that supply is made by Chinese drug lords operating from the Philippines.

Police there are starting to discover industrial-style labs capable of producing a tonne or more of the drug each day. That equates to about 10 million hits a day.

Shabu can be made easily and cheaply from ephedrine, which is used in legitimate drugs such as cough medicine.

The scale of the trade and the depth of corruption it causes is best illustrated by the case of Ronnie Mitra. He was the mayor of Quezon province when he was arrested in 2001 for trafficking more than 500k of shabu. Last August he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The shabu crisis is rapidly filling the country’s prisons. There is a mandatory life sentence for selling even the smallest quantity of the drug. Holding cells are full of young men and women brought in for selling just a few dollars worth.

With a mandatory no bail policy and life in prison, if convicted, the impact on families and communities is huge.

Marybeth Basura, prisoner

Marybeth was sentenced to life for selling
$70-worth of shabu

Marybeth Basura was sentenced to life two years ago for selling $70 of shabu. She has an 11-year-old son.

Looking around her cramped cell she explains that most of the other women in there are also serving life sentences for selling shabu.

She says: “My mother said that he [Marybeth’s son] joined other kids in collecting scrap metal to raise money for my bail. He didn’t realise that I’d already been sentenced to life.

“It’s rather sad isn’t it? He didn’t know.”

When asked what she dreamt of for her future before she was imprisoned, Marybeth says: “It seems too late for that. Really it’s too late.

“Life sentence, it seems like it’s forever.”

Marybeth is languishing in jail essentially because she is poor and powerless. If you are rich and into shabu you do have other options.

Fer, former addict

Fer was addicted to shabu for 26 years and
now works as a counsellor

Fer was addicted to shabu for 26 years, but managed to stay out of prison. His family forced him into rehabilitation two years ago.

He is now a counsellor at Penuel House – a new rehabilitation centre in a well-to-do suburb of the capital, Manila.

He paints a frightening picture of the extent of shabu use among the middle class.

“I was working in a bank, I had a career, had money, I had friends, but still it ruined me.

“In every sector of life, in business, in casinos, airline companies. Everywhere where someone could afford shabu, in a group of 10 there will be three or four who are using.”

At one of his counselling meetings he tells the group: “If only I had listened to my dad. I used to rebel against my father, always to question what he was saying. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I became drug dependent.”

Miguel Perez-Rubio, health department consultant

Miguel Perez-Rubio is one of the country’s
leading experts on illegal drugs

Miguel Perez-Rubio is a consultant to the health department and one of the country’s leading experts on illicit drugs.

He says: “I would call it an epidemic, that for example really worries the health department, very much.

“This causes a lot of problems for young people especially, but is also a problem in society because it produces all the other effects of social breakdown.

“There is corruption, it encourages more corruption. It encourages also violence.

“[It is] a very profitable business to be involved in – the making and pushing of drugs, any kind of drugs….

“One of the most depressing things is the growth of shabu use in the poorest areas, in the slums.

“Poverty brings about despair, problems in families, break up of families. So they take recourse in

“They could get a certain amount of pleasure to do away with real life, which is not a pleasurable type of life. It’s a life full of sacrifices, a life of a tremendous amount of suffering and that brings them out of it.

“To make one kilo of shabu costs about 2,000 pesos and you’re able to sell a gram for three to five or 6,000 pesos. It’s a lot of money, no business would give that.

“What can you do with that amount of money? You can bribe easily, you can just get away with anything.”

Source: Al Jazeera