Published: 20 January 2020
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here and thank you for inviting me to join you for today’s seminar.
Harm Prevention is the Bedrock of Singapore’s Approach Towards Drugs
2. The theme of our seminar is “Harm Prevention: Our Unified Voice”. This is the unified voice of the nation and the unified voice of all interested parties in wanting to prevent the harms of drug abuse.
3. Indeed, the fundamental principle underlying Singapore’s approach to drugs is to prevent harm to our people and society in the first place. This is clearly much more effective than letting the drug problem fester and only then after it has happened try to reduce the harm. You can do harm reduction after the fact – but we do not think this is the best way of going about it. We should try and prevent the harm from happening as a start.
4. Our harm prevention approach comprises preventive drug education as the first line of defence; tough laws and robust enforcement; and, very importantly, evidence-based rehabilitation which is grounded on research and on the science of it.
We Must Remain Guided by Research and Evidence
5. We have organised today’s seminar to bring together Government agencies, community partners and academia, to share research findings related to harm prevention. It is important for experts from different fields to study the management of drug addiction and strategies. This will help ensure that policies and programmes are robustly backed by research and evidence on their relevance and effectiveness.
6. We have also, particularly in support of today’s seminar, put together a Home Team Journal Special Issue. This special issue has a focus on drugs to document such research that has been conducted and also to provide insights on multiple aspects of the drug problem, which is a complex problem with many different facets. A number of the authors who contributed to the research are here today. This Special Issue is being released today and copies are available for all attendees. This Special Issue will also be made available online on MHA’s website.
Drugs Destroy Individuals and the Society
7. A key area of research is to understand the harms of drugs. You may think that it is obvious to us how harmful drugs are. But it sometimes frightening to realise that outside of this room, outside of this community, the harms of drug abuse are not necessarily shared uniformly across the board.
8. The Global Burden of Disease Study estimated that there were close to 600,000 drug-related deaths and 42 million years of “healthy” life lost in 2017 – that was in one year alone. These are really lives lost due to premature death, and years of abusers’ lives lived with disability because of drug addiction. This study was published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent health research centre in the US.
9. Studies documented in our Home Team Journal Special Issue found that drugs impose immense costs on individuals and the society. Let me just quote some of the findings.
10. First, drug consumption and trafficking fuel other crimes. Research in many jurisdictions suggests that the abuse of illegal drugs is positively correlated with property crimes. In other words, drug abusers commit crimes to support their drug habits. The range of drug-related property crimes includes theft, burglary and street robbery. I remember visiting a neighbouring country with the chance to interact with some of the locals, and they told me that because of where they live - it is considered an affluent area - those who are relatively affluent will put a certain amount of money on the kitchen table. The people who come to steal from their homes are by and large drug abusers, so in order to prevent harm to themselves, they decide that this is better for them. This is how serious the extent of the problem is.
11. Second, cannabis use can harm individuals’ life outcomes. A study which followed a New Zealand birth cohort up to age 25 found that an increased frequency of cannabis use between the ages of 14 to 21 was associated significantly with negative life outcomes by age 25. These included lower income, higher levels of welfare dependence and lower levels of life satisfaction.
12. Third, legalising cannabis is linked to increases in crime and traffic accidents. After the state of Colorado in the United States legalised cannabis in 2012, organised crime linked to cannabis increased significantly, from 31 cases in 2012 to 119 cases in 2017. This is a fourfold increase in four to five years. Traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for cannabis more than doubled, from 55 people killed in 2013 to 138 people killed in 2017. In the city of Denver, Colorado, areas adjacent to neighbourhoods where there were cannabis dispensaries saw about 84 more property crimes per year as compared to other neighbourhoods without a nearby cannabis store.
13. Economists have attempted to quantify the cost of drug crime in monetary terms. Even for Singapore, where our drug abuse rates are much lower than other countries, it is sobering that the total cost of drug crime was as high as S$1.23 billion in 2015. Dr Chia Wai Mun from the National Technological University (NTU), one of the co-authors of the study, will share with us the findings later in the seminar.
We Must Take a Firm Unified Stance Against Drugs
14. The Government and the community must maintain a firm, unified stance against drugs, to prevent harm to our people. It is heartening to know that our anti-drug approach is strongly supported by the public. In a public perception survey on Singapore’s drug-related policies conducted in 2018, more than 97 per cent of respondents felt that drugs are harmful. More than 97 per cent of respondents also agreed that we should continue to maintain tough laws to keep drugs out of Singapore – but 97 per cent is not 100 percent. You still have a small group that don’t quite agree.
15. However, the support of the public cannot be taken for granted. There is a lot of misinformation about drug use. For example, there are incredulous claims that cannabis is harmless. If we do not counter such misinformation, this may lead wrongly to the liberalisation of attitudes. For example, that cannabis has medical applications, but not raw cannabis. This is just a fine difference to confuse people. Public support for our zero tolerance stance on drugs may then be eroded.
16. We must therefore not let up on public education on the harms of cannabis and other drugs. The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) and the National Council Against Drug Abuse (NCADA) have, in fact, intensified their preventive drug education efforts in recent times.
17. There is also a need for tough laws and robust enforcement to reduce the supply of drugs into Singapore. It is simply too lucrative.
18. One question often asked is about the deterrence value of our drug laws. Why do we need to be so strict? A study by Home Team psychologists Dr Jasmin Kaur, Teo Kah Shun and Salina Samion, found that offenders who did not traffic drugs felt deterred from doing so by the fear of being caught. In other words, they knew they had a chance of being caught, they knew what the penalties were in store if they were caught and it is because of these penalties that they then realised it would be better not to traffic drugs. For those who did traffic drugs, they were still influenced by the punishment for drug trafficking and consciously limited the amount they trafficked to minimise the potential punishment they might receive if they were caught. In other words, they were hedging their bets. They expected that they may be caught, and they thought to themselves about the limits and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. So, it is completely the case, that these laws do serve a deterrence effect and that they are paid attention to.
19. This finding is further supported by the study conducted by Dr Chia Yee Fei. The study found that the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for cannabis in 1990 helped reduce the likelihood that cannabis traffickers chose to traffic above the capital punishment threshold. The study also found that the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for opium in 1990 was associated with a large reduction in the average net weight of opium trafficked.
20. The Government’s firm stance against drugs has borne clear results. In the 1990s, there were over 6,000 drug abusers arrested each year in Singapore. Today, that has gone down to about 3,000, even though our population has grown in that time.
21. Besides prevention and enforcement, rehabilitation is another key pillar of our harm prevention strategy. Rehabilitation is crucial to help drug abusers stay away from drugs, break the vicious cycle and turn their lives around. In the public perception survey mentioned earlier, more than 97 per cent of respondents agreed that drug abusers should undergo rehabilitation. They also agreed that rehabilitation should be mandatory because abusers themselves may not be able to make rational decisions. For the well-being of the entire society, it is better that we make it a requirement for them to go through rehabilitation.
22. In Singapore, drug abusers undergo rehabilitation programmes that are customised according to their risks and their needs. These include psychology-based correctional programmes, family programmes and employment preparation programmes. After completing their programmes, drug abusers can serve the tail end of their detention in the community, either at home or at approved residential facilities such as halfway houses or day release camps. This structured and gradual process scaffolds them for their reintegration back into society. When you build up a building, you want make it safe and you build foundations. Even during the building process, you need scaffolding that is firm. That is exactly what we are doing with our rehabilitation.
23. Due to the collective efforts of the authorities, community partners and stakeholders, Singapore’s recidivism rate for drug abusers has dropped considerably, from 67.4 per cent for the 1996 release cohort to 24.4 per cent for the 2016 release cohort. Over a 40 percentage-point improvement over two decades. A lot of hard work. The recidivism rate for drug abusers has remained relatively low by world standards and stable over the past few years. Still, we must not take it as a given and we really do want to see if we can find the next breakthrough.
24. Every abuser who manages to turn his life around is a life saved and improved – and also the lives of his family and ultimately the well-being of our society.
25. So, let me conclude. It is our collective responsibility to help Singaporeans to live the best life possible. This means preventing drugs from becoming a scourge in the first place and helping abusers wean away if they have fallen to the lure of drugs. We must protect the right of the very large majority of Singaporeans to live, work and play in a drug-free Singapore.
26. Singapore’s harm prevention approach has worked well for us, with the drug situation under control despite the significant deterioration in the international environment. The Government is committed to working closely with our partners, so that together, including researchers and academics, we can further strengthen our evidence-based approach towards drugs.
27. On that note, I wish you a fruitful seminar. Thank you very much.