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4 in 10 drug users in Singapore started on illegal substances before 18: IMH survey

4 in 10 drug users in Singapore started on illegal substances before 18: IMH survey

File photo of a cannabis joint being rolled. (Photo: Reuters/Jason Redmond)

SINGAPORE: The average age that drug users in Singapore start taking illegal substances is about 16 years old, an Institute of Mental Health (IMH) survey has found.

About 41.8 per cent of those who said they had consumed drugs started doing so before they turned 18, according to the survey findings released on Wednesday (May 3).

The 2022 Health and Lifestyle Survey by IMH involved 6,509 randomly selected Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 15 to 65, and included questions on the consumption of illegal drugs.

Based on the survey findings, it is estimated that about 0.7 per cent of Singapore residents had consumed an illicit drug at least once in the last 12 months, said the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).

The most frequently consumed drug was cannabis (45.9 per cent), followed by ecstasy (21.2 per cent) and methamphetamine (18.5 per cent). Another 11.2 per cent took heroin.

The majority of the respondents who said they had taken drugs also cited cannabis as the first illicit drug they had consumed.

“It is worrying, as teenage is an important phase of development,” said Dr Mythily Subramaniam, assistant chairman of the medical board (research) at IMH.

“Consumption of illicit drugs at this young age can impact the lifelong well-being of these young people. It can also affect their academic achievements, social relationships and can also increase the risk of development of mental disorders in the future.”

Several studies have identified that adolescents and young people are at higher risk of taking illicit drugs, she said.

“It is worrying that youths are adopting more permissive attitudes towards drugs,” a CNB spokesperson told CNA.  

“We can stop drugs from coming in through the borders. But we also need to address the different ideas, attitudes and ways of thinking about drugs perpetuated by other countries and societies, with their own unique contexts that don't necessarily apply to Singapore.

“There has been a strong push by parties with vested interests for more liberal drug policies, and their intense lobbying has brought about perturbing legislative changes in some countries.”

Last year, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to decriminalise cannabis but issued a raft of regulations shortly after to curb its potential unchecked use.


CNB said that youths may turn to encrypted chat applications, such as Telegram, to get drugs. The agency has been monitoring this trend since 2019 and has arrested more than 500 offenders who took part in drug transactions.

According to the IMH survey findings, the two most commonly cited locations where people took drugs were at home and at a friend’s home. The third most common was overseas.

“That people are taking drugs behind closed doors in the privacy of one’s home is not a surprise. Parents and family members thus have an important role to play in being vigilant to possible drug abuse and helping their family members seek help,” said CNB.

“We encourage parents to have conversations with their children from an early age about the harms of drugs.”

Speaking at the CNB workplan seminar on Wednesday, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said: "We are very concerned that drug abuse starts at such a young age, and at home, where young people should have parental supervision and be safe.

"Given the long-term impact of drug abuse, we need to do more to address this. We have increased efforts to educate the public, especially youth, on the harms of drugs, and counter misinformation and proliferation of liberal drug views on foreign media and social media – something which our youths are particularly susceptible to. We intend to reinforce our efforts."

About a fifth (21.6 per cent) of those who had taken drugs said the reason they did so was because they were curious about the illicit substances. This was followed by the belief that the drugs would help with their problems, and being influenced by friends.

The survey also showed that a huge majority (82.1 per cent) of respondents perceived illegal drugs to be very harmful.

Legal consequences, chances of being arrested and the adverse effects on health were the top reasons cited by those who stay away from such drugs.

How the survey was done

A disproportionate stratified sampling method was used to select 6,509 Singapore residents aged 15 to 65 to take part in the survey.

They were representative of Singapore’s resident population by age, race, gender and citizenship status.

The survey was conducted from April 2021 to July 2022. Participation in the survey was voluntary and informed consent was obtained from all respondents before their answers were taken.

They were also under no obligation to answer any question they did not want to.

There was no linking of a participant’s name to any of the data, with consent given verbally, said IMH. Respondents were handed a tablet to answer the questions or a link to an online survey.

The replies and data were not linked to any identifiers and analysis was done at the group level, said the health institute.

No contact information was provided to IMH. Contact details of the participants were released by the Ministry of Health directly to the survey firm to avoid potential identification.

“No identifiers were collected, and all responses were treated with strict confidence,” said IMH.

The survey firm destroyed all contact records three months after the completion of the survey.

The health institute said the response rate may have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, in that fewer people did not want to participate as they may not be comfortable interacting with an interviewer who is not part of their household.


In March, parliament passed amendments to Singapore's drug laws that will levy heavier punishments on offenders who possess a large amount of certain Class A controlled drugs, such as cannabis or cocaine.

Mr Teo said: "The drug menace has inflicted untold harm on many societies. In Singapore, we have been able to protect ourselves and have chosen the path of harm prevention.

"We have strong societal consensus that drugs are harmful and that we should keep drugs out of Singapore to protect our people, especially our youth.

"Many foreigners who choose to work and reside in Singapore with their families, also appreciate the safe and drug-free environment in our schools and our society. They tell us that they hope their own countries could be like Singapore, safe for their children."


Source: CNA/mi(gr)


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