Singapore will not decriminalise cannabis

A grower holds out a product at the High Times US Cannabis Cup in Seattle, Washington September 8, 2013. — Reuters pic
A grower holds out a product at the High Times US Cannabis Cup in Seattle, Washington September 8, 2013. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, March 15 — The Republic does not support calls for drug decriminalisation or legalisation, as this is inapplicable to relatively drug-free societies and contrary to international drug conventions, said Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee.

“Other countries have, in recent years, decriminalised or legalised the use of cannabis, both for medical as well as recreational purposes. We will not do the same,” he said.

Speaking at the 59th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna today,  Lee also reinforced Singapore’s zero-tolerance stance on drugs. Instead of harm reduction, as practiced in other countries, Singapore focuses on harm prevention.

“We... choose to focus our efforts upstream to ensure that drug abuse does not take root in our society, as well as focus on the rehabilitation and reintegration of those who do abuse drugs, to help them lead drug-free lives,” he said.

The world drug situation remains challenging, noted  Lee, and as a transport hub close to the Golden Triangle, Singapore is frequently targeted by syndicates as a transit point and market for illicit drugs.

“Since the 1970s, we have adopted a comprehensive, consistent and sustained approach to tackling both drug supply and drug demand. This approach of harm prevention has allowed us to remain relatively drug-free over the past few decades,” he said, adding that the number of drug abusers arrested here last year comprised less than 0.1 per cent of the population.

In his country statement, Lee acknowledged that the same approach might not work for every country.

“Each country, each one of us, must address its own drug problem taking into account the historical, political, economic, social and cultural contexts and norms of its society. And we respect every country’s sovereign right and responsibility to choose the approach to tackling drugs that is best for them and their citizens,” he said.

 Lee noted that several countries have pushed for the drug problem to be “re-interpreted” as a public health problem.

“I do not think anyone disputes that there is an important public health element to tackling the drug problem. But we do not, and cannot see it purely as a public health or medical issue. In framing the drug problem, our concern is first and foremost about protecting Singaporeans, and keeping Singapore safe and secure,” he said.

The spiralling support for liberal approaches overseas has been a cause for concern back home, said Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Goh Soon Poh during a media briefing last week. Examples of such approaches include harm reduction, legalisation of certain drugs and decriminalisation of drug use — letting the drug abuser off with a fine, and no criminal record.

“We feel that for us a zero tolerance approach is the way to go. But when we have more and more voices, there will be growing international pressure and more liberal attitudes,” she said, adding that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had commissioned two drug studies which reinforced the Republic’s long-standing zero-tolerance stance on drugs.

Both studies were conducted between July and December last year.

Professor Stella Quah, an adjunct professor at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, weighed the harm reduction and harm eradication programmes adopted by 11 countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and Germany.

Harm reduction promotes one’s right to using drugs and the legalising of hard drug use. Supporters fight for the provision of clean injecting equipment and safe injecting facilities. The end game: reducing the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is harm eradication, which is practiced in Singapore. It operates on the basis that the individual’s autonomy has been impaired by addiction, and places emphasis on controlling drug demand and supply.

Singapore, in particular, has tough laws, robust enforcement, upstream intervention for young abusers, and rehabilitation and supervision to prevent relapse.

In recent years, most of the 11 countries have shifted from harm reduction towards a harm eradication approach, said Prof Quah, adding that the prevalence of HIV and Hepatitis C remains on the rise in these countries, and there is increasing evidence of physical harm caused by injecting drugs.

“The harm reduction approach... is not relevant in our context. Our drug abuse situation is well under control. We have little to no HIV infections from injecting drug users. Deaths from drug overdose are rare,” said Lee, sharing the study findings in his country statement.

In the other study, led by the Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) Consultant (General Psychiatry) Jimmy Lee, researchers combed through over 500 papers from international medical journals to review the use of cannabis.

The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) noted recently that cannabis has replaced heroin as the second most-abused drug here — trailing behind methamphetamine — among new abusers last year.

Researchers found that one in 10 cannabis abusers will become addicted. Daily abusers have a 50 per cent chance of developing dependence.

Long-term use has been linked to impaired memory and decision-making, as well as the development of mental illnesses.

Dr Lee said: “Cannabis can be used for specific medical conditions (such as chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting). But when it comes to the rest of the medical conditions, the literature doesn’t support the widespread use at the moment. So more studies need to be done before the medical profession supports its use.”

These findings support the view that cannabis should remain an illicit drug, said Lee. Even if the drug needed to be administered for medical purposes, there are frameworks for the clinical prescription of controlled drugs.

“There is therefore no need to decriminalise or legalise the use of cannabis. Nor is there a need to legitimise a profitable industry and lobby for highly addictive drugs, which can only fuel demand,” he said.

Commenting on the study’s findings, CNB deputy director Winston Wong said many young abusers have misconceptions about using cannabis. “Therefore the findings by the IMH group on cannabis ... will help us address and correct all these misconceptions that cannabis is not harmful and addictive, and we’ll use it in our preventive drug education efforts,” he said.

CNB statistics showed that 1,311 new drug abusers were nabbed last year — nearly 20 per cent more than the 1,093 in the preceding year. Those in the under-30 age group made up more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of the total number of new abusers last year. — TODAY