(Delivered in Parliament on 4 April 2017)
Mr Deputy Speaker, like most Singaporeans of my generation, having been born here and socialized to uncompromising anti-drug messages throughout my growing years, I have not experienced the reality commonplace in other countries where drugs are available to teenagers in schools or in bars and university campuses without too much difficulty. Singapore’s small size, tough laws and the dedication of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) to their mission have made this possible. But Singapore is an outlier.
The reality of governments in other parts of the world is very different. At best, this has to do with being a larger polity and the difficulty in ensuring that the writ of the state extends across hundreds and thousands of kilometres, different political cultures, different social circumstances and different norms that govern individual freedoms and liberties. At worst, it is a self-evident reality that the worldwide war against drugs has failed. Whichever perspective one takes, these realities have precipitated a new and different approach now taken globally to deal with the drug problem. A major plank of the new approach calls for the legalization of drug use, particularly medical marijuana on health grounds and in some jurisdictions, the legalization of recreational drug use per se.
Legalization around the world and in Southeast Asia
As many Americans went to polls in 2016 to decide between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton as their next President, a parallel vote took place on the legalization of marijuana. This resulted in 9 states, including California, Florida and Massachusetts passing laws that allowed for either regulated medical or recreational marijuana use. Today, 44 states in the US have legalised some form of drug use.
In 2001, an Economist article titled ‘The Case for Legalization’ argued that a legal market for drugs would be the best guarantee that drug taking would be no more dangerous than smoking and drinking, even as it acknowledged that legalization would not easy. Fast forward just about 15 years and the first sentence of a piece on the legalization of drugs in the same publication went like this – “The argument for the legalization of cannabis has been won.” Insofar as global trends are concerned, the movement to legalize drugs is now effectively mainstream.
Mr Deputy Speaker, there is a belief that the movement towards legalization is a Western phenomenon. But such an assumption would be a wrong.
Closer to home, attitudes are shifting too, mainly with a view to get a better handle on the drug problem and to undermine organized crime. The Senior Vice Chairman of the Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation, Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye in a piece titled ‘Consider less Severe Punishment’ in the New Straits Times last year, noted that despite punitive laws against illicit drugs, capital punishment and spending millions to address the problem, the number of addicts in Malaysia was growing. He called on the Malaysian authorities to consider the road less travelled and to decriminalize drug use and possession, and to treat drug addiction as a medical problem. The writer also reflected on countries like Portugal which adopted less punitive policies towards drug possession more than a decade earlier, and in doing so had not experienced any significant increase in drug use, drug related harm or crime compared to countries with punitive laws.
Separately, late last year, the Thai cabinet approved a proposal to allow hemp, a plant which is part of the cannabis family, but with lesser amounts of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, to be grown as a cash crop as part of a project to use narcotic plants for medical purposes. Prior to the Cabinet decision, Thailand’s then Justice Minister General Paiboon Koomchaya was quoted in the Thai media as saying that he was firm in his aim to remove marijuana from the narcotic drugs list and to treat it as a medicinal herb.
The Arrival of Medical and Recreational Marijuana
The movement towards the gradual acceptance of some drugs, chiefly cannabis for medical purposes is a powerful catalyst in the case for the legalization of drugs, even if medical authorities have not ruled definitively in this area and medical practitioners argue that there are realistic alternatives to medical marijuana. Nevertheless, an international industry has already taken form and a stronger lobby is likely to follow. Late last year, the International New York Times reported that Israel has been a leading player in medical marijuana research as early as the 1960s and that 25,000 of its citizens today hold permits to use medical marijuana to ease symptoms of cancer, epilepsy and other diseases with the number expected to grow rapidly. In fact, the Guardian has also reported research in Israel will transform the medical marijuana industry into and I quote, “a serious endeavour of pharmaceutical research, producing new strains and drugs able to alleviate the symptoms of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, insomnia and other conditions.” (unquote) With advances in technology, many Israeli companies are working to develop medicine that can deliver precise doses of THC so as to regulate its psychoactive effects with a view to bringing relief to those in chronic pain. What is being repeated around the world where fierce debates about legalisation are taking place and have taken place, is the emotionally powerful argument that medical marijuana has eased the suffering of those in pain.
It is also fathomable that the research into medical marijuana will have a direct bearing on the use of recreational marijuana for which precise doses could also correspondingly be marketed as a safer means of drug consumption. To that end, a recent Business Monitor Online article notes that with the growing legalization of marijuana for recreational use, entirely new industries for consumer-related companies will be created, including transport and through social media. It assessed that while medical marijuana will be an important part of the market, recreational use of marijuana will create new opportunities for consumer industries especially food and beverage with derivatives of marijuana potentially added to beer, chocolates and candy.
What is also likely to accelerate the legalisation of drugs worldwide is the potential of regulation and taxation with recreational usage potentially killing off the profits earned by drug cartels and moving them into state and corporate coffers – the challenge being setting the appropriate tax rate. I would hazard that the attraction of taxation may prove irresistible for those governments that have not been able to successfully keep drugs out of mainstream society in the same way Singapore has been able to.
Singapore – Preparing for the Future
What the global trends suggest, and I turn to the language in the motion, is that Singapore will find it even more difficult to keep drugs out of the country and in the consciousness of our children and people in view of the seismic cultural shifts in attitudes towards drug use for medicinal and recreational purposes in many jurisdictions around the world. Our tough laws will continue to serve as a deterrent for some drug traffickers but I am concerned we will find it increasingly difficult to persuade younger Singaporeans particularly those who venture overseas for studies or business about the dangers of drug abuse. The somewhat emotionally persuasive argument about medical marijuana, in spite of currently more established medical opinion, will make this even harder.
At this point, Singapore can and should stick to its time-honoured position of a strong ant-drug policy, in view of the still evolving global environment, of our unique circumstances, and because we have been able to get a handle on the drug problem and successfully kept drugs out of our schools. However, with a large population of foreigners, many of whom are transient residents living and working in Singapore and a significant number of overseas Singaporeans who may have a very different cultural attitude towards drugs, the argument for a drug-free Singapore may increasingly come under strain.
Nonetheless, we should and must begin preparing for a much tougher environment in the immediate term, and this not only if the research on medical marijuana turns decidedly positive. As drug syndicates are put out of business because of legalization, some drugs traffickers or abusers may paradoxically choose to target Singapore from the safe confines of other countries if there is money to be made here. Those who will fall foul of our tough drug laws will not be the kingpins, but the couriers, many of whom seek to make a quick buck.
We also may expect to see a rise in the number of marijuana abusers. In fact, a Facebook page titled Singapore Cannabis Awareness has already generated close to 4000 likes and it makes a point to track changing norms about the legalization of cannabis around the world, recently posting a story about the state of New South Wales in Australia funding the world’s first clinical trial for the use of cannabis in alleviating chemotherapy induced vomiting and nausea. This is not fake news, for such trials are indeed ongoing, but the practical effect of such developments around the world I fear will likely result in a more relaxed attitude towards the usage of cannabis.
The rise in the arrest of cannabis abusers as reported in the CNB’s drug situation report of 2016 may portend such a trend. For those who believe a more permissive environment for recreational consumption of drugs in Singapore would not necessarily be hazardous, I would say, be careful about what you wish for. The research-based evidence is sobering. According to Lancet Psychiatry, in a 2015 article which reviewed annual and repeated cross-sectional surveys on medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use in the US from 1991 to 2014, almost a 25-year period, it found territories which decriminalised illicit drugs or where the laws were generally permissive saw an increase in drug abuse amongst teenagers and young adults. And that prospect – should there be arguments made about a drug-tolerant regime in Singapore – is scary and wholly unwelcome. As it stands, the argument for the legalisation of drugs in Singapore in particular, is not compelling or persuasive at all.
To conclude Mr Deputy Speaker, strict laws can only do so much, even if they host a deterrent effect. Stepping up rehabilitation is the right thing to do. However, in view of the new global approach towards drugs, the Government would have to significantly step up education about the slippery slope of drug abuse. In my ward of Eunos in Aljunied GRC in years past, I have worked with the Central Narcotics Bureau and conducted preventive education talks at our local mosque with the permission of the mosque committee and I thank them for their support. At schools and tertiary institutions in particular, we will have to significantly step up preventive education to prepare our children and young adults for the world of tomorrow where access to drugs will become more commonplace than ever before and firmly in our mindshare. The Government would also have to focus more squarely on the permissive attitudes that are hardening in favour of supposedly softer drugs like cannabis. There is nothing soft about cannabis. It is harmful to one’s health and not every citizen will have ready access or support from family members to rehabilitative resources. As is usually the case with illegal drugs, the poor and low-income will be the hardest hit.
We must all say no to drugs.