This file photo taken in July 2016 shows a Caloocan City alley where a drug suspect was killed in a police operation. A Caloocan group is offering community-based rehabilitation as an alternative to the bloody drug war. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/file

MANILA — A grandmother in her 50s was referred to a government rehabilitation facility, having failed practically all drug tests, and deemed unfit for a new community-based program introduced in Caloocan City in late 2016.

But the woman begged lawyer Sikini Labastilla, the man in charge of the program, promising to change her ways. The fear had less to do with the restrictions under a government facility and more about not seeing her grandchildren for good.

As things already stood, she was kept away from them because she was a drug user. That deep alienation, it was later revealed during screening sessions, was what plunged her deeper into addiction.

It took a team that included trained psychologists to draw out this root cause of the addition, which served as the important first step toward the woman’s eventual recovery.

“Every drug user has pain,” said Labastilla, executive director of Caloocan’s City Anti-Drug Abuse Council (CADAC).

“Find where the trauma is” then rehabilitation and recovery will follow, he said, citing the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach integrated in the city’s program.

It’s a strategy that his group, the Community-Based Rehabilitation Alliance (COBRA), now plans to replicate nationwide, getting a boost from Vice President Leni Robredo during her short stint in the government’s anti-drug committee.

President Rodrigo Duterte sacked Robredo just after 19 days, but not before she brought community-based drug rehabilitation to the national attention.

“We’ve found a new ally and she now realized that a lot of her programs… are very much in consonance with what we have been doing,” Labastilla said on ANC’s Matters of Fact podcast, playing down the idea that community-based drug rehabilitation (CBDR) would lose momentum with Robredo’s removal from the coordinating committee.

In fact, he said COBRA was developing a Philippine-style community-based program adopting the CBT approach, which was normally done in in-patient settings.

But only about 5 percent of drug users require admission to a drug facility, he said, meaning the CBDR program fit 9 out of 10 dependents.

CBT “teaches those recovering from addiction and mental illness to find connections between their thoughts, feelings and actions, and increase awareness of how these things impact recovery,” according to the US-based Addiction Center. 

But integrating this approach to a city or town’s CBDR program will require significant resources to hire, say, a psychologist trained to handle such therapy, Labastilla said.

The team will also include doctors and nurses, and a program crafted specifically based on a person’s level of addiction, he said.

The Philippine drug rehabilitation experience is quite unique because users were forced to turn themselves in for fear of being gunned down by masked vigilantes on motorcycles, after their names were included in the government’s “tokhang” list.

In 2016, months after Duterte took office and the killings began, a community in Caloocan that had enough of the murders held a “unity walk” to convince authorities to give drug users a chance.

The CBDR program, then based in a parish, began soon after.

“First it was so hard,” Labastilla said recalling how the village chief had to do his own “tokhang” by knocking on the doors of know drug addicts, but without the police. 

“Please come over. Maybe there’s something for you here,” the barangay leader would appeal to the users, encouraging them to try the new CBDR program. 

But the risks remained because they still went home after the day’s rehabilitation sessions, a concern addressed partly with the local police’s support in the city-wide program, Labastilla said.

Later, more and more people started coming in and a total of 936 drug users have graduated from the program, Labastilla said.

Caloocan has an estimated 15,000 drug users and pushers, meaning it needs more than its 16 CBDR centers at present.

But the program was born nonetheless, a far better option than to await what may be certain death in the hands of hooded killers.