SINGAPORE: The recent decision by the United Nations to remove cannabis from the most tightly controlled category of narcotic drugs is one that is driven by the "power of money", said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday (Dec 5).
Member states of the UN drug agency had on Wednesday voted 27-25 with one abstention for Recommendation 5.1, which states that cannabis and cannabis resin should be deleted from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention – a global text governing drug controls.
"I put this down to the power of money. Companies see a huge amount of profit and a very invidious idea that cannabis is not harmful is being pushed," said Mr Shanmugam.
"But the evidence that it is harmful is quite substantive."
Mr Shanmugam noted that last year, the medical journal Lancet highlighted that there was a greater risk of psychotic disorder from the abuse of cannabis.
The Surgeon General of the United States also pointed to three negative effects of cannabis, said Mr Shanmugam, including an effect on adolescents' learning and a decline in IQ.
Singapore's Institute of Mental Health in 2015 reviewed "all the reputable literature on the subject" and presented it to the UN, he added.
"The evidence was quite clear. I said it to the United Nations at the UN. I said, look, if there is evidence that it is not harmful, we will change. But so far, what we have done has worked for us," said the minister.
"It should be doctors and medical associations who should be telling us that they need this for medical purposes and if so, a framework can be worked out, to be given to patients who need it, with suitable safeguards," he added.
"It should not be profit-driven companies which decide, which you buy over the counter, and say that it is for medical purposes."
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a launch of a book featuring quotes by rehabilitated ex-offenders, Mr Shanmugam cited several negative effects of legalising cannabis, using Colorado state as an example.
One study estimates that for every dollar Colorado receives in tax money from the sale of drugs, another US$4.50 is spent to deal with the negative consequences, he said.
"Increased number of people in prisons, increased homicides, increased crime ... How can it not be concerning? The evidence is there," he added.
Singapore needs to "hold the line" on the issue, Mr Shanmugam said.
"Of course, it depends on persuading the population with rational arguments, with science, and also trying to persuade the international community," he told reporters.
"I think if it were based on rationality and science, I have no doubt we will succeed. But we are also fighting the power of money in other countries."
DRUG SITUATION IN SINGAPORE 'UNDER CONTROL'
When asked to assess Singapore's current drug situation, Mr Shanmugam said: "You can never win the fight. But, we more or less have it under control."
He noted that the number of first-time drug abusers being picked up in Singapore has been on the rise.
With East Asia and Southeast Asia being the second-largest market for meth, Mr Shanmugam said the situation is "not pretty".
"As I have said, we have managed to have it under control in Singapore, but you need to be constantly on the vigil, and there is a fight internationally as well," he added.
"We need to put forward our position, persuade countries that it is in the public interest – their public interest as well as our interest – that we fight this together."