Commentary: Smoking marijuana at 13 sent my youth into a downward spiral
An arrest for abusing heroin altered the destiny of author and consultant Jix Sze.
SINGAPORE: In January 1977, I got recruited to sell heroin.
One day in August that year, I was in the front seat of my supplier’s car. He told me that underneath the floor mat was a packet containing about 60 straws of heroin, and that he was delivering it to someone.
After travelling along Old Airport Road, we were stopped at a police roadblock. The officer looked through the car and its boot, then waved us to drive off.
I only realised how harrowing that incident was when an addict told me about the death penalty under the 1975 Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act. He also warned me about Operation Ferret, an island-wide effort to fight drug abuse that started in April 1977.
Shocked and fearing the consequences, I immediately stopped work and severed ties with the supplier. Learning about the death penalty deterred me from the trade.
ZERO TOLERANCE PRECLUDES DRUG ABUSE
The back-and-forth between Richard Branson and the Singapore Government had been a national talking point for a few weeks, throwing up different views about drug use and the death penalty.
A 2020 survey by the National Council Against Drug Abuse shows that support for Singapore’s zero-tolerance approach against drugs is lower among youth as opposed to those above the age of 30, reflecting increasingly lax attitudes towards narcotics.
Yet the majority of Singapore residents support the death penalty as both deterrent and punishment for drug trafficking, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) press release in October.
I believe there will always be demand for illicit drugs, even in Singapore. The death penalty thwarts supply and prevents drugs from getting to customers. This in turn tames demand, as the supply in itself can create demand for drugs. This is because the availability of drugs hooks in the young and vulnerable.
My drug use started in 1971, when I was 13 years old. A classmate introduced me to the MX pill (Mandrax), a highly addictive sedative that was once prescribed for insomnia. After being introduced to smoking marijuana months later, I was abusing a mix of MX pills and cannabis.
Whether cannabis is a gateway to “harder” drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine is debated among researchers and governments – but my experience has shown me that it is the case. You learn about new substances once you are part of a drug user community, which was how I started abusing heroin in 1972.
This is worrying when according to the Central Narcotics Bureau, more teenagers are taking cannabis in Singapore. The number of those arrested this year has surpassed last year’s figure of 138.
THE TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION LEFT BY DRUG ABUSE
While the recent arrest of a 14-year-old for suspected drug trafficking might seem incredible, it is an echo of my own troubled youth. But what was worse is that my mother and three siblings suffered from my volatile behaviour.
My mother bore the brunt, having dealt with the fallout from my truancy, smoking, drinking and defying authority in school – not to mention each incident of fighting, cheating and stealing.
In October 1977, my family finally broke through by convincing me to stay at a halfway house and undergo a cold-turkey withdrawal. After two weeks, I felt well and left. But I resumed taking heroin the next day.
I was eventually arrested in late December 1977, three months shy of turning 20. I was to return to the police station 7 days later for my urine test result.
But a miracle happened: The test result turned out negative. This defining moment spared me from imprisonment, turned my life around and away from wasting the years ahead of me, which is 44 years of my life till today.
OVERCOMING THE BONDAGE
Now that I give talks on drug addiction issues, I have heard many accounts from both young and old addicts. Some started using drugs at a very young age and have been in and out of prison throughout their lives. Others were caught on their first use and rehabilitated, but upon reintegration, resumed their drug use and never recovered.
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Then there were others who started on “soft” drugs that subsequently led them to abuse a concoction of substances, which led to their death.
Overcoming drug addiction generally involves physical and psychological withdrawal. The physical withdrawal can be punishing and agonising, but that will clear.
It is the psychological withdrawal that persists. The battle for sobriety lasts a lifetime because the memory of drug use can be triggered through one’s thoughts, emotions and situational circumstances.
Knowing I can never eradicate memories of my past, I made three decisions. First, I quit smoking and drinking as they spark associations with past episodes of inebriation.
Second, I started making a conscious effort to manage my thoughts and emotions, so I could change my values and character for the better.
Third, I ringfenced myself from any undesirable company at all costs. In 1987, I ran into an old friend at a carpark. He invited me to his music lounge and offered me networking opportunities with his well-heeled patrons.
That night I met a group of five people. While chatting, I noticed a woman discreetly passing something to the man beside her. I knew it was a straw of heroin, so I gave an excuse and left immediately.
An addict usually fails if he fights his battle alone, so this is where support can help, such as family, community and treatment programmes or providers. But the journey towards recovery can be arduous and lonely, because it is one an addict must embark on by themselves.
My life could have ended up wasted or gone too soon – I am thankful that it turned out otherwise. For me, my endeavour was not just for a life of sobriety, but a life transformation.
Jix Sze is the managing partner of Jix Sze & Partners, a training consultancy and publisher of children’s educational products. He is the author of Chasing The Dragon Out: An Inspiring Story Of A Drug Addict’s Altered Destiny.