SINGAPORE: Drug users will be given help by the Government to kick their addiction, regardless of their socio-economic background, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament on Friday (Mar 1).
Mr Shanmugam was speaking during the Committee of Supply debate in response to Workers’ Party Chief Pritam Singh, who earlier raised concerns that the recent changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act may inadvertently operate in favour of drug abusers from affluent households.
Mr Singh said: “On the surface of things, it would appear that (drug abusers from affluent households) would have fewer obstacles procuring drugs as compared to low-income addicts who may resort to crime to feed their urge.
“Such a prospect may mean that hardcore addicts with criminal antecedents and parallel criminal charges would ironically have lesser access to the new rehabilitation regime which can help keep them out of long-term detention."
Part of the recent changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act was to help move the drug rehabilitation regime towards a more "calibrated" approach, by distinguishing between abusers who only consume drugs and those who concurrently commit other offences.
Under the proposed amendments, first-time abusers who do not face other concurrent criminal charges, and are assessed by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) to be of low-risk of further abuse, will be put on the Enhanced Direct Supervision Order (EDSO). It is a non-custodial supervision order, for up to five years.
In addition to monitoring by CNB, abusers on the EDSO will be assigned a case manager who will provide support to their families and themselves.
First-time abusers who are assessed to be of moderate or high-risk of further abuse, as well as second-time and subsequent abusers, will go through the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) regime.
ABUSERS WITH LOWER WAGE 'NO MORE LIKELY' TO HAVE BOTH DRUG AND CRIMINAL CONVICTIONS
Mr Shanmugam noted that the points raised by Mr Singh were “fair”, but maintained that the bottom 20th percentile of wage earners nationally “are no more likely” to have both drug and criminal convictions at the same time than high-wage earners.
“If you look at those on long-term imprisonment, about nine in 10 inmates, before the changes were made, were from the bottom 20th percentile of wage earners nationally. Long-term inmates are drug abusers who have been picked up for the third time or more," the minister said.
“They will be eligible to be channelled to (DRCs), if they admit to drug use and have committed no other crime."
On a “philosophical” level, Mr Shanmugam raised the point that a person who abuse drugs would need to be treated differently from someone who abuses drugs and commits a crime.
“For those who abuse drugs, the right thing to do is not to so much look at the economic background or social background, but to say what’s going to help them kick the habit and become useful citizens in society. And our approach is based on many years of data and experience,” he said.
He added that it was also in society’s interest to prevent this category of people from “committing crime and ensuring safety of society”.
“How to help them – whether in long-term imprisonment or DRC – to stay off drugs and crime is something that we are intensely focused upon. And hopefully with our programmes, regardless of which socio-economic group they come from, when they come out, they are able to lead a healthy ... and productive life,” said Mr Shanmugam.
PREVENTIVE EDUCATION FOR YOUTHS
Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs Amrin Amin, who spoke later during the debate, highlighted that “preventive education” is Singapore’s first line of defence against the “drug scourge”.
He highlighted that the increase in youths engaging in harmful drug abuse was a concern, with young abusers under 30 years old forming close to two-thirds of the new abusers arrested last year.
Mr Amrin added that the number of new youth abusers under 20 years old increased by 30 per cent in 2018.
In an effort to overcome this, he said CNB is reaching out to students through talks, roadshows, social media and projects.
“With their talents and passion, youths can be powerful anti-drug advocates,” said Mr Amrin.
Mr Amrin also reiterated the Government’s stance on illicit drugs, including cannabis.
In December, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Malaysia and the Philippines have considered following suit.
Commenting on this, Mr Amrin said: “The trend is largely driven by commercial lobbyists thirsty for profits, and serves as a politically expedient way out of a drug abuse situation over which some governments have lost control.”
He added that for these cases, public interest and the welfare of individuals, families and society are sacrificed "on the altars of bad science, profits and political expediency".