The Yellow Ribbon Community Project Annual Appreciation Luncheon 2018 - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 15 September 2018

Fellow Grassroots Advisors,

Commissioner Desmond Chin,

Chairman SCORE, Mr Chng Hwee Hong,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


  1. Good afternoon.




  2. The Yellow Ribbon Community Project (YRCP) has grown much, since inception in 2010 – 75 grassroots divisions on board today; 900 trained volunteers provided support to 9,000 families of offenders.


  3. Through the past eight years, YRCP volunteers have tirelessly supported a consistent, shared mandate to reach out to the loved ones of those incarcerated.


  4. Many are here today. We deeply appreciate your selfless contributions, thjey are critical – re-kindling estranged relationships, pointing offenders’ families to community resources, providing them with emotional support. Thank you.




  5. Today, I want to speak about the international drug situation, which is very serious. E.g. The US is mired in the opioid crisis, growing cannabis problem.


  6. I want to share four of the factors that caused this crisis:
    - Pharmaceutical companies
    - State interests
    - Media
    - Dubious research


  7. Underlying all this – driven by money.


    (1)     Big Pharma


  8. First – Big Pharma companies have irresponsibly pushed addictive opioids

    into the homes of millions of Americans. One of the prime examples – Purdue Pharma. Based on media reports, e.g. FT [1] last weekend, Purdue deliberately marketed OxyContin for years as a harmless painkiller when in fact it is a powerful, addictive opioid.


  9. Sales reps are taught to aggressively target inexperienced doctors, persuade them to prescribe it for everything from cancer to back pain. When doctors became concerned that patients were getting addicted, sales reps convinced them it was because patients were still in pain. The solution? Push even more pills to them.


  10. As a result, patients became addicts. Snorted or injected crushed pills, and progressed to heroin, other drugs.


  11. The family behind Purdue Pharma has amassed US$13 billion in wealth. And reports suggest it has continued to profit from the misery of others. Purdue was recently granted a patent for another drug used to wean addicts off opioids. Pharma companies like Purdue continue to have free rein, given the pharma industry’s outsized influence in the US.


    (2)     State Interests


  12. This brings me to the second factor: state interests. Big Pharma is one of the top 3 in terms of lobbying spending in the US - US$25.4 million spent on lobbying US congress in 2017 alone, and millions more on lobbying at the state level.


  13. Same pattern in the cannabis industry. The cannabis industry is worth a lot of money. Cannabis lobbyists, officials, businesses cite many reasons why cannabis consumption should be legal. The common argument is to let businesses earn this money instead of the black market, then use the taxes to help people. Estimated US$9 billion of “legal cannabis” sold in the US in 2017.[2] Not just in traditional plant form. Cannabis is being baked into cookies, infused into soft drinks and even beauty products. Although cannabis is still prohibited at the federal level in the US, it has not stopped individual states from legalising the sale and cultivation of cannabis.


  14. Nevada started recreational cannabis sales last July. By January 2018, it saw US$25 million in tax revenue. One of their state senators also on the boards of cannabis-related companies. One of Nevada’s most prominent cannabis legalisation advocates said: “It’s a great thing because the money was already being spent [when it was illegal]. It’s just now being taxed and cops don’t have to waste their time arresting users.”


  15. Result of the lobbying and funding? Government becomes beholden to industry, pretends that the interests of the companies that fund them are also the common interests, and what is best for the man on the street.


    (3)     Media


  16. Third, the media has helped perpetuate the impression that drugs are harmless. In the case of cannabis – claim it is not just benign, but beneficial.


  17. Over the years, there has been a deliberate shift to a narrative which promotes cannabis as a cure for conditions like opioid abuse, PTSD[3] and epilepsy.


  18. Washington Post [4]: In the last 5 years, they have run almost 200 articles connecting cannabis to treatment of these conditions. New York Times did the same thing. This is done, knowing that citizens’ buy-in will help to persuade conservative voters and states legislatures to make cannabis widely available. Liberalism in drug policy.


    (4)     Dubious Research


  19. This environment helped by dubious research is the fourth factor. A lot of research fuelling the perception that cannabis is not harmful and is in fact beneficial, that cannabis’ health risks have been overstated and its medical uses overlooked. Another popular argument emerging amidst the opioid crisis in the US is that regulators should allow greater access to cannabis, because opioid addicts can then rely on cannabis instead, which is purportedly safer.


  20. The US National Institutes of Health probed deeper into this, looked at how cannabis affected people’s behaviour and found that it in fact substantially increased the risk of opioid abuse. [5]


  21. Our own Institute of Mental Health (IMH) did a study on cannabis and concluded, based on a wide scan of robust research, that cannabis is harmful, especially to the brain and cannabis is addictive.


  22. In the US, a confluence of aggressive commercialisation, permissive legislation, fatigue with the failures of prohibition, a disproportionate media focus downplaying the harms of cannabis and trumpeting their medical use – culminating in lax attitudes and the misperception that cannabis is harmless among the population. People start to think smoking cannabis is cool, and absurdly enough – “healthy”.




  23. The consequences of these factors are stark. Impact on the young: In 2017, 1 in 7 adults in the US used cannabis. But among 18 – 29 year olds, it was 1 in 4.[6] The share of people with resulting disorders more than doubled compared to 2002.


  24. Hyper-potent cannabis products are being sold, which scientists worry are more addictive and can cause brain damage.


  25. Dispensaries in Colorado are recommending high potency cannabis products to pregnant mothers to treat morning sickness. It is well-established that cannabis use during pregnancy is linked to problems like low birth weight, stunted brain development, and even rare developmental problems where babies are born without parts of their brains and skulls[7].


  26. In Colorado as well, the number of cannabis related hospitalisations jumped more than 70% after legalisation of recreational cannabis. Some of these were children poisoned by cannabis “sweets”. The number of deaths caused by drivers high on cannabis more than doubled from 2013 to 2016. All innocent victims of misguided policies.


  27. Just like the victims of the US opioid crisis today, while Big Pharma earns billions, the rest of the country grapples with a crisis which costs US$79 billion a year.[8]


  28. Almost 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US in 2016 – 175 people a day. While every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal.[9]




  29. We are in a challenging region, home to the Golden Triangle. Trafficking of heroin and methamphetamine in this region alone is estimated to generate over US$32 billion annually. It is attractive to international criminal syndicates.


  30. Being a major transport and commercial hub, we are vulnerable both as a transit point and an import market.


  31. We have therefore adopted a position that protects our people – unyielding and clear. We don’t buy into this nonsense – that drugs are good for you. If science says so, then okay. But we have not seen such scientific evidence as yet.


  32. We take a tough line. We have the death penalty for traffickers and it is illegal to use controlled drugs. The cost to our society because of drugs –out of 9,000 offenders in the prison system, more than 80% have drug antecedents.


  33. For every offender, a family is suffering because of the offender’s drug abuse.


  34. Two weeks ago, in an island-wide operation, CNB arrested a female drug abuser. She had a three-month old baby girl. Investigations showed the mother continued to abuse “ice” during her pregnancy and after the baby was born. I spoke earlier about children in the US, born with opioid withdrawal. Who knows what harm has already been caused to the baby’s health? Did this baby have a choice in the matter? Why does an innocent child have to pay for her mother’s irresponsible actions? CNB worked with Child Protective Services to arrange for an extended family member to take care of the baby, and to provide community support. Volunteers like yourselves will now have to be there for the baby because her mother has failed her.




  36. Prisons does its best to rehabilitate the 9,000 offenders under its charge. But it is unable to take care of every aspect. This is where many of you come in. Community’s help is needed to complement Prisons’ work.


  37. There are many examples of how YRCP has changed the lives of offenders for the better.


  38. Story of Mr Affandy in the feature video earlier: Abused “ice” for 4 years. Arrested, placed in DRC. As a single parent with accumulated housing debt, – difficult to restart his life. YRCP volunteers were there for him during this rough patch and provided practical and emotional support. Today, he is a YRCP volunteer himself. It is truly meaningful when someone whom the system helped, is now contributing to the system.


  39. Help for the beneficiaries can come in many forms.


  40. Story of John, a 3-year-old toddler shows how volunteers made a difference to him in his father’s absence. John was only 3 years old when his father was incarcerated. Accustomed to having a father-figure in his life, John had difficulties adjusting to life without his father. Displayed an unusual amount of aggression. His mother, Annie struggled to appease him She had to care for her 2 and 5 year olds as well. Volunteers noticed John’s unusual amount of aggression – repeatedly punching a cushion.


  41. Annie initially refused help, as she was already receiving help from agencies. But her strong demeanour changed when volunteers asked about John. Volunteers realised that John missed having a father figure. They befriended him, gave John much-needed companionship. John gradually showed positive behaviours, less aggression. Over time, Annie noticed his behaviour improved tremendously. She was grateful for the volunteer’s dedication, for being a friend to her child while she was coping with the changes in the family.


  42. Each of you will have your own story.




  43. We will be asking for your help later this year to distribute YRCP booster packs to inmates’ families. Packs include grocery vouchers, food items worth $50. An added opportunity to reach out to the inmates’ family, a conversation starter, an additional touchpoint, and a way to show that the community cares for them.


  44. We thank community partners for sponsoring these booster packs: Heartwarmers Volunteer Group, Inmates’ Families Support Fund (IFSF), Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF) and Community Chest for mobilising volunteers to assemble the packs.


  45. Booster packs will be progressively delivered from this month onwards.


  46. Thank you for joining us in this meaningful cause.





  47. The US experience shows if we are not firm, clear-minded, deliberate in our actions, drug abuse will grow insidiously, until one day it spirals out of control and society is torn apart.


  48. We have put in place a system – zero tolerance for drugs, but at the same time there is help for offenders, and their families and loved ones.


  49. Good work by Prison volunteers like yourself has kept the scourge of drugs at bay. You have helped families and the individuals who will return to them one day.


  50. To volunteers, advisors, community members, continue supporting the YRCP. Together, let us work towards a society without drugs, without re-offending.


  51. Thank you.

[1] Source: The Financial Times, “How Purdue’s ‘one-two’ punch fuelled the market for opioids”, published 10 September 2018.

[2] Legal at the state level.

Source: CNN, “The U.S. Legal Marijuana Industry is Booming”, published 31 Jan 2018

[3] Post-traumatic stress disorder, which the U.S. media often associates with veterans.

[4] Source: The Washington Post, “Has the U.S. reached a ‘tipping point’ in marijuana legalisation?”, published 23 Jul 2018

[5] Source: American Journal of Psychiatry, “Cannabis Use and Risk of Prescription Opioid Use Disorder in the United States”, published Jan 2018 (authored by Mark Olfson, M.D. from Columbia University, Melanie M. Wall, Ph.D, Shang-Min Liu and Carlos Blanco, M.D. Ph.D.)

[6] Source: Gallup poll in Jul 2018

[7] Also known as anencephaly

[8] Estimate from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Includes costs for increased law enforcement, drug treatment and business disruption.

[9] Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services