(Delivered in Parliament on 15 January 2019)
Calibrated Rehabilitation: Giving repeat drug addicts a better way out
Mr Speaker, the proposed amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act represent an important philosophical shift to some aspects of the fight against drugs, while reinforcing the uncompromising stance against drugs in Singapore.
Almost 20 years ago, the Ministry took a very specific approach towards hardcore addicts through the Misuse of Drugs Act – initiating long-term mandatory imprisonment and caning for hardcore drug addicts – a hardcore addict being defined as one caught more than twice for drug consumption.
Back then, the priority was not on framing drug addiction as a social issue afflicting drugs addicts, but behaviour that had to be criminalised. Addicts who consumed drugs for the third time faced up to seven years imprisonment and five strokes of the cane, while addicts caught four or more times faced up to 13 years imprisonment and 12 strokes of the cane.
In introducing the Long-Term (LT) regime, the-then Minister moving the amendments noted that the proportion of hardcore addicts among the total Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) population had increased from 65% in 1994 to 71% in 1997.
In the then-Minister’s second reading speech, such hard core addicts were referred to by the Minister as “bad people” who were likely to become drugs pushers and traffickers too. It revealed a state philosophy that was focused on an uncompromising stance towards hardcore addicts with rehabilitation openly seen as having its limits. In the words of the then-Minister I quote:
“Sometimes, despite all the good-heartedness, the love and the hard work put in by volunteers in half-way houses, some of these volunteers do feel disheartened that these addicts just do not have the discipline to take the treatment. But the Government will do what it can to help them, ie, both these recovering addicts as well as the half-way houses. In terms of financial support, I think if they can justify a case to ask for more money, we will look at it, but the Government does not just spend money, throwing good money after bad money to people who do not want to change.” (unquote)
One of the main amendments proposed today is to fine tune the LT1 and LT2 regimes in circumstances where the drug addict does not have concurrent criminal charges. In parallel, the amendments raise the time an addict can spend in the DRC from three to four years, along with a longer supervisory window from two to five years to submit himself or herself at random to the authorities for a urine test or to provide a hair sample.
Mr Speaker, I am supportive of the aforesaid changes and commend the significantly more enlightened attitude taken by policy makers to shift the focus on helping selected repeat drug offenders in a surgical manner through the calibration of the Misuse of Drugs Act rehabilitation regime. This is no mean feat given the risk that some may erroneously construe this shift as a relaxation of attitudes towards hardcore addicts.
I however see it as a example of rational and sensible policy-making. In fact, this policy shift is significant considering the LT regime was introduced a mere twenty years ago and amended to cover even more offenders when the Act was amended in 2006. Notwithstanding my support on this point, I have some clarifications I seek from the Minister.
The first clarification is a request for information. In 1998, the then Minister in introducing the LT regime shared that more than 73% of hardcore drug addicts have some form of criminal record. I had originally intended to ask how have these percentages changed over the years and the figures were today and how many drug addicts imprisoned under the LT1 and LT2 regimes currently faced concurrent criminal charges when they were sentenced to long-term detention? Minister noted in his second reading speech that this number was about 50% today. Minister also spoke earlier about easier access to funds and a general rise in access to drugs in the region. In view of the latest statistics provided, would Minister be able to share the family background and income levels of those with criminal charges and those without, under the current LT1 and LT2 regime.
Separately, to give the public a better sense of the rehabilitation task ahead, can the Minister share – out of the inmates committed to DRCs how many are first-time and how many are repeat offenders?
My second clarification – while the amendments do not foresee any increase in public expenditure, how much more support will be given to counsellors and half-way house employees and volunteers to help keep recidivism numbers low? The reality when we speak of rehabilitation and the new calibrated approach is that someone somewhere will be on the delivery end of the outcome sought – far fewer repeat drug addicts than today.
So the proposed changes are likely to put an acute focus on the people behind the rehabilitation of drug addicts as they endeavour to get drug addicts out of a dangerous situation for good. What sort of training and support will these individuals undergo so that they do not feel disheartened about addicts who do not respond well to treatment such that they can continue plugging away at this hugely important task of rehabilitation? This is likely to become more significant as a large part of rehabilitation involves reintegrating the addict into the community, and in gainful employment, something that may be even more challenging in this age of disruption. It is vital that maximum support is extended to the volunteers, workers and supporters throughout the drug rehabilitation chain from DRC staff to uniformed officers and to families and parents that need help and assistance to help their loved ones kick the habit for good.
Clause 3 of the Bill introduces a number of new laws that are far reaching and reflective of the State’s uncompromising and hard stand against drugs. Amongst other things, it criminalises acts of contamination which facilitate or promote drug use including actively introducing a drug trafficker to another person, knowing the trafficker is likely to supply him with drugs. A person shall also be guilty of a contamination offence if he teaches, instructs or provides information to another person on how to cultivate, manufacture, consume, traffic, import or export controlled drugs such as cannabis for example, knowing or having reason to believe that the other person intends to carry out these activities. It makes it an offence for an adult to leave drugs or drug utensils within easy access of a child he/she, knowing that a child (defined to be below 16 years of age) is likely to be in proximate range of the drugs or drug utensils.
Mr Speaker, what is needed is for knowledge of these new laws to be widely disseminated within the community so that they help send a strong deterrent message. I would like to ask the Minister what measures will be taken to make these new laws well-known, particularly amongst foreigners who may not be familiar with the minutiae of our various laws on drugs and among high-risk individuals like former addicts.
I would suggest that more preventive eduction across platforms on these amendments on contamination as introduced in clause 3 would be particularly important because of the rising permissiveness across the region on drug consumption, and a general relaxation of the laws against drugs throughout the world.
Mr Speaker, I support the proposed amendments to the Act.