On the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill and Constitution Amendment Bill – Speech by Sylvia Lim

I will first speak on the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill before moving on to the Constitution Amendment Bill. 

The MDA Bill has two purposes – first, to regulate psychoactive substances, and second, to increase the punishments for possession of larger quantities of certain controlled drugs.  I shall touch on both these areas.

New Psychoactive Substances

The Workers’ Party is aware of the increasing threat posed by new psychoactive substances (NPS).  There has been rapid development of new synthetic substances with narcotic or psychotropic effects. These effects are reportedly similar to those of drugs such as cocaine and cannabis.  Many of these substances also carry a risk of addiction. 

As these new substances may fall outside the ambit of existing drug laws, those taking them are able to get “legal highs”, which accounts for their demand.  There is a vast array of new substances, with some more harmful than others.  To assist governments to decide which substances to regulate, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been sharing toxicology information with laboratories and governments, highlighting the substances deemed more harmful to individual and social health. 

Sir, we have had decades of experience with the abuse of controlled drugs.  We have seen families whose lives have been upended by drug addiction, with cross-generational effects such as absent parents and young children growing up in institutional care.  We owe it to Singaporeans to minimise such scenarios.  In view of the evidence of the harms caused by NPS, the Workers’ Party supports the rationale for regulating NPS in Singapore.  This includes providing a regime for the supervision, treatment and rehabilitation of NPS abusers, without charging them in court.

That said, I would like to seek two clarifications on the new framework to regulate NPS.

First, a question on NPS coverage.  Out of the thousands of psychoactive substances, how will the Ministry decide which ones to regulate?  Besides the UNODC advice, or are there other frames of reference?  Do we have our own scientific analyses?

Secondly, on listing NPS as controlled drugs.  NPS are currently listed in the First Schedule to the Act.  The Minister of State earlier stated the Ministry’s concern that due to the rapid emergence of new substances, there will be a time lag of about one year before these substances are listed as prohibited; during this interim, law enforcement and prosecution agencies are currently powerless to act.  Hence the Ministry is introducing this Bill to enable agencies to act on a general definition of what counts as a psychoactive substance.  Can the Ministry confirm that it is the intention to list every NPS of interest in the First Schedule?  Put another way, how will we handle cases where someone is investigated for an NPS offence, based on the new broad definition, but the substance concerned is eventually found after industry consultation to have a legitimate use?  Earlier Minister of State mentioned that if such a legitimate use was found, then the substance would not be listed.  How would such cases be handled?  

Enhanced Punishment for Possession of Larger Quantities of Certain Controlled Drugs

 I now move to the second thrust of the Bill to increase the punishments for unauthorized possession of larger quantities of certain controlled drugs.  There are 8 drugs in question: cannabis, cannabis mixture, cannabis resin, cocaine, diamorphine, methamphetamine, morphine and opium. 

As to why this change is being tabled, the Ministry has stated that the Central Narcotics Bureau had observed that abusers were purchasing larger quantities of drugs, which would have “significantly contributed to the local drug demand situation”.

These amendments deal with drug possession.  The changes will separate the punishments into three tiers, depending on the weight of the drugs.  For the lowest tier of weight, no change to the punishment is being made.  For the middle and upper tiers, the punishments are being enhanced. 

In trying to make sense of this, I studied the changes relating to possession of diamorphine (heroin).  I note that under the existing law, there is a presumption that a person is a drug trafficker once he is in possession of more than 2 grammes of diamorphine.  In this Bill, the lowest tier of punishment for diamorphine cuts off at a maximum of 10 grammes, much higher than 2 grammes.  No change in punishment for this tier is being proposed.  As for middle tier, the cut off weight is set at between 10 to 15 grammes, while the upper tier is set at more than 15 grammes.  It is worth noting that under the current law, trafficking in more than 15 grammes attracts the death penalty.  For these two higher tiers, the punishments for possession are being increased.

It is important for the Ministry to justify these increases and elaborate on the local drug demand situation.  Further, would it be correct to infer that these changes are targeted at cases where the suspects are charged with trafficking, but the trafficking charge fails in court? 

Before I end on the MDA Bill, I would like to make a general observation.  Our strict anti-drug policies have broad-based support among Singaporeans, especially those who have lived through the earlier years when heroin and opium destroyed many families.  However, there appears to be a desire in some segments of the population for a more nuanced approach, especially towards younger people who are influenced by peers to try drugs.  It is not an approach I would advocate.  But it will be important to engage with such sentiments.   

On the Constitutional Amendment Bill

I now move to the Constitution Amendment Bill.  There are two substantive amendments.  Clause 2 concerns the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, while Clause 4 seeks to plug what the Finance Ministry sees as a gap in the law.

As regards Clause 2, as mentioned earlier, the Workers’ Party supports the rationale for tackling NPS.  The MDA Bill envisaged a supervision, treatment and rehabilitation regime, that may involve the detention of individuals without a court conviction.  We are always very wary of any laws that enable arrest and detention without a court process.  Nevertheless, in this specific circumstance, we are able to support the amendment to Article 9 to give effect to the treatment regime for NPS misuse.

I move next to Clause 4 of the Bill.  This is an amendment to Article 148C concerning the powers of the Finance Minister to make transfers between the Consolidated Fund and its Contingencies Fund, and between the Development Fund and its Contingencies Fund.

During the Budget Statement this year, DPM Lawrence Wong reminded the House that in May 2020, the Government had raised the Contingencies Funds balance from $3 billion to $16 billion in anticipation of needing urgent and unforeseen cashflow due to the COVID pandemic.  He noted that with the return to normalcy, he wished to reduce the balance of the Contingencies Funds from $16 billion to $6 billion.  He assessed that this would ensure adequate resources for exigencies, while retaining discipline in how our finances were managed.  He then highlighted that this Constitutional amendment was needed, as there was currently no mechanism for a reduction of the balances of the Contingencies Funds.

There are two new sub-articles being introduced to Article 148C.  The proposed sub-article (5) will enable the Minister for Finance to make transfers out of the Contingencies Funds back to the Consolidated Fund and Development Fund respectively.  This will be allowed if the Minister, after proper inquiry, is satisfied that the sum to be transferred back is in excess of what is likely necessary to meet an urgent and unforeseen need from that Contingencies Fund.  As to how Parliament will be involved in this process, the proposed sub-article (6) will require the Minister to present a report of every transfer as soon as practicable after the transfer is made.

Logically, there is no reason for us to object to a transfer back of sums to the Consolidated Fund and Development Fund, if these are assessed to be no longer needed for exigencies.  Nevertheless, it is useful for the Minister to clarify the role Parliament will play in this process.

In the May 2020 debate on the Fortitude Budget, DPM Heng Swee Keat had explained the role of Parliament when it came to drawing on the balance in the Contingencies Funds.  He highlighted that any amount advanced by the Finance Minister to meet urgent expenditure would thereafter be included in a Supplementary Supply Bill or Final Supply Bill, which would be presented to and voted on by Parliament as soon as practicable.  This is an important process, as Parliament is briefed on the items being spent on and will vote on whether to pass the Bills or not.

In today’s Constitution Amendment Bill, we are dealing with a situation where excess monies parked in the Contingencies Funds are being returned to their parent funds.  As the reductions in the balances will require a reporting to Parliament, will the Minister explain what form this reporting will take, such as what information will be provided and how Members can participate in this process.