Future challenges in drug control will arise due to 'trend in many countries' to legalise drugs: PM Lee
SINGAPORE: Singapore will face future challenges in drug control due to the "trend" of legalising drugs for recreational use and the exposure to social media where such abuse may be glamourised.
"We will face challenges in future because first, the trend in many countries is to legalise drugs, in particular, cannabis, for recreational use", said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Dec 7).
Speaking at Central Narcotics Bureau's (CNB) 50th anniversary event, Mr Lee said many of these countries have been unable to control their domestic drug situation.
This has led to the legalisation of drugs to regain "some control" over the situation, with some countries also being "lured" by the economic benefits of regulating the recreational use of drugs.
But things can go "awry" despite best intentions to advocate for a "harm-reduction approach" to drugs, added Mr Lee.
He illustrated his point with Singapore's own case study from the early 2000s.
"In 2002, Subutex was introduced as a legal prescription for treating opioid addiction. But some people started abusing Subutex as an alternative to heroin, injecting themselves to get a 'high'. Within a few years, the number of Subutex abusers and Subutex-associated deaths increased significantly," he said.
"We decided to put a stop to this. In 2006, Singapore listed Subutex as a controlled drug, and CNB mounted swift operations to wipe out Subutex from our streets."
"GLAMOURISED" DRUG USE
Another concern stems from youths' frequent exposure to alternative lifestyles on social media, said Mr Lee.
"Drug use may be glamourised, giving the impression that using drugs is harmless, or even cool."
Based on annual surveys conducted by the National Council Against Drug Abuse, the attitudes of youths towards drugs are gradually becoming "more liberal", he added.
"This is a very worrying trend. We must push hard against it, to prevent our children and grandchildren from becoming the next generations of drug abusers."
TOUGH LAWS, ROBUST ENFORCEMENT
To combat these future challenges, Mr Lee highlighted three of CNB's key strategies.
First, the "tough anti-drug laws" which CNB enforces strictly against drug traffickers and abusers.
In 1973, the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced, setting harsher penalties for drug pushers and traffickers, and allowing the detention of drug addicts for treatment and rehabilitation.
But the "pivotal change" came in 1975 when Singapore introduced the death penalty for "the most serious drug offences", in particular for trafficking more than 15g of diamorphine, or pure heroin, said Mr Lee.
Soon after, the "deterrent effect" of this harsh penalty was felt. Drug traffickers became "much less willing" to bring drugs into Singapore. Drug abusers "desperate to obtain drugs" had to go to Johor to buy and smuggle drugs into the country in small quantities.
At the same time, CNB stepped up its enforcement activities, added Mr Lee.
Just last month, CNB conducted an island-wide operation, arresting 50 suspected drug abusers and seizing more than S$20,000 worth of drugs.
"Nowadays, drug traffickers and abusers use e-commerce services and encrypted messaging apps, like Telegram. CNB will need to continue using technology to the full, to tackle new threats and drug supply methods," said Mr Lee.
"Tough laws and robust enforcement provide a strong deterrent that helps keep the number of drug abusers in Singapore low."
RIGOROUS REHABILITATION REGIME
The second key strategy employed by CNB is a "rigorous rehabilitation regime" for drug abusers, added Mr Lee.
To ensure former drug abusers stay off drugs, they are placed on a supervision scheme after being released from drug rehabilitation centres or prisons.
Over the years, CNB reviewed its supervision regime to place greater emphasis on effective rehabilitation, said Mr Lee.
This included increasing the maximum supervision period from two years to five, making counselling compulsory for young drug abusers and their parents, and allowing first-time low-risk drug abusers to continue with studies or work instead of being sent to a drug rehabilitation centre.
"These initiatives help drug abusers break the cycle of addiction and better reintegrate into society," said Mr Lee.
He also shared a story of a former drug abuser, who had abused cannabis since he was 15 years old. With the help of a CNB officer, the boy went on to complete his studies and is now a doctor.
"COMPREHENSIVE" PUBLIC EDUCATION, COMMUNITY-LED ADVOCACY
The third key strategy is "a comprehensive and sustained public education programme" alerting people to the dangers of drug abuse, said Mr Lee.
"Public education is an equally important part in this war, if not the most crucial part. Through effective public education, we can stem drug abuse upstream before it causes more troublesome social problems."
But CNB cannot win the war on drugs alone, added Mr Lee.
Public education entails working closely with other agencies, including the Ministry of Education, schools and many non-government organisations. Together, they organise a wide range of activities, including school talks, exhibitions and even video-making competitions.
They also produce well-designed collaterals and media products, including an Augmented Reality Mobile App for primary school children.
CNB also employs "community-led advocacy" in their drug education programme, said Mr Lee.
This includes establishing close partnerships with community partners to lead the annual Anti-Drug Abuse Campaign, co-organise seminars and meetings, and work with youth volunteers to positively influence their peers.
SINGAPORE TODAY "RELATIVELY DRUG-FREE"
"Our situation is under better control than most other countries. The number of drug abusers arrested annually in Singapore has fallen to about half that in the mid-1990s," said Mr Lee, who added that Singapore today is "relatively drug-free".
"Our drug situation contrasts sharply against countries with more permissive approaches."
He highlighted the US opioid crisis, which caused nearly 500,000 people to die from opioid overdose from 1999 to 2019.
"Because of our strict anti-drug approach, Singapore has been able to keep our people safe from these problems," he said.
"Today, there are no open drug markets and drug ghettos in Singapore. Nor is there a problem of drug overdose deaths."