MHA proposes harsher penalties for large-scale drug possession, stricter control of psychoactive substances
Caning will be introduced as a punishment for those who possess large amounts of certain Class A controlled drugs that “cause the most serious harms”.
SINGAPORE: Offenders who possess a large amount of certain controlled drugs, such as cocaine or cannabis, may face more severe punishments if suggested amendments to Singapore’s drug laws are passed in Parliament.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is also looking to beef up legislation in order to combat the growing use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) and reduce the need for authorities to "play catch-up" with ever-evolving variants.
On Friday (Feb 24), MHA tabled the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill and the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill in Parliament.
Among the ministry’s key proposals is a new legislative framework to better tackle the threat of NPS, which produce the same or similar effects as controlled drugs.
Under this framework, substances will not be controlled based on their chemical structure, but instead on their capacity to produce a psychoactive effect.
This comes three years after the ministry first said it was reviewing its laws to deal with NPS, amid new variants of such substances being produced at a swift rate to avoid classification as Class A controlled drugs.
MHA is also proposing to amend the Constitution in order to authorise the arrest and detention of NPS abusers for treatment and rehabilitation.
INCREASED PUNISHMENTS FOR DRUG POSSESSION
In a press release, MHA said that the proposed enhanced punishments for possessing selected controlled drugs — which “cause the most serious harms” — above certain weight thresholds will include caning.
These drugs are:
- Diamorphine (pure heroin)
- Cannabis resin
- Cannabis mixture
MHA noted that the current sentencing framework for drug possession “does not sufficiently account for the potential harm that could be caused” by those who possess large quantities of drugs.
Currently, those found in possession of controlled drugs can face a maximum of 10 years' jail or a fine of $20,000 or both. There is no statutory minimum for any amount of the drug.
If the proposed legislative amendments are passed, those who possess at least 10g but less than 15g of diamorphine will face a minimum of 10 years' jail and five strokes of the cane. The maximum will be double that.
MHA said that in recent years, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) has observed that syndicates are willing to deal in larger quantities of controlled drugs in each transaction.
“This shift may correlate with abusers purchasing larger quantities of drugs in a single transaction, instead of multiple smaller quantity purchases.
“A person in possession of large quantities of drugs would have significantly contributed to the local drug demand situation.”
MORE ABUSERS OF PSYCHOACTIVE SUBSTANCES
As for psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabis, MHA noted that the number of abusers has increased significantly in the last few years.
Eleven NPS abusers were arrested between 2014 and 2017, while an average of 235 were nabbed per year between 2018 and 2022.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, at least 1,150 NPS were reported worldwide as of April 2022, a sharp increase from the 166 reported in end-2009.
Consumption of NPS has been linked to adverse physical and psychological reactions, including paranoia, seizures, hallucinations and death, MHA said.
MHA added that its proposed new legislative framework will control substances based on whether they can produce a psychoactive effect, rather than on their chemical structure.
Similar approaches have been adopted by the United Kingdom and Australia, the ministry said.
A psychoactive effect, in relation to an individual, means the stimulation or depression – whether directly or indirectly – of the individual’s central nervous system, which affects the individual’s mental functioning or emotional state.
MHA noted that drug syndicates have become “increasingly adept” at changing the chemical structures of NPS to produce new forms of psychoactive substances that are not controlled under international drug conventions and governments’ schedules of controlled drugs, including Singapore’s.
Currently, NPS are listed as Class A controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act, either individually or grouped by their core molecular structure.
It is an offence to traffic, manufacture, import, export, possess or consume these substances.
Any person found guilty of trafficking Class A controlled drugs will face a minimum of five years’ imprisonment and five strokes of the cane.
The Fifth Schedule of the Misuse of Drugs Act also allows novel forms of NPS to be listed for up to 12 months, during which CNB officers are empowered to seize the substances while scientific analysis and industry consultations are held to determine if there is a legitimate use.
If no legitimate uses are identified, the substances will be listed in the First Schedule.
MHA said: “As traffickers and abusers now switch very quickly to new forms of psychoactive substances that have yet to be listed as controlled drugs, the authorities are always playing catch-up, due to the lag from the time a new form of psychoactive substance is first detected to the time it is listed in the First Schedule.”
During this period, enforcement and prosecutorial action cannot be taken against those who deal in the substance, MHA added.
The proposed legislative framework will not apply to psychoactive substances that have legitimate uses or are already controlled under other regulatory frameworks. These include intoxicating substances, nitrous oxide, alcohol, tobacco and food additives.
Accused persons can also invoke a defence if they use the substance for a legitimate purpose.
The punishment framework for offences under the proposed legislative framework will take reference from that of Class C controlled drugs.
MHA is also proposing that offenders who previously trafficked in controlled drugs, and have been convicted of trafficking in NPS, should be considered repeat offenders and subject to enhanced trafficking punishments.
If passed, the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill will give the director of CNB the powers to commit a suspected NPS abuser for medical examination or observation; subject an abuser to supervision; and commit an abuser to treatment and rehabilitation.
These align with the CNB director’s existing powers with respect to controlled drugs, said MHA.
Accordingly, MHA proposed amending Article 9 of the Constitution to expressly extend its ambit to the new laws which authorise the arrest and detention of NPS abusers for treatment and rehabilitation.
Members of Parliament will debate both Bills at a later sitting.