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Decriminalising drugs will only worsen the problem

The push by some activists to decriminalise or legalise drug use in Singapore and other parts of the world is reckless and irresponsible, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam, adding that this will only worsen the drug problem. He made this point in a speech at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs on Thursday. Below is an excerpt from his speech, where he also called on those who argue against the death penalty to be looking at the evidence.

Decriminalising drugs will only worsen the problem

Singapore adopts a very tough legal framework which gives the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) and the agencies a lot of powers to investigate, arrest and deal with the problem. TODAY File Photo

The push by some activists to decriminalise or legalise drug use in Singapore and other parts of the world is reckless and irresponsible, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam, adding that this will only worsen the drug problem. He made this point in a speech at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs on Thursday. Below is an excerpt from his speech, where he also called on those who argue against the death penalty to be looking at the evidence.


If you look at the World Drug Report, for this region, if you look at methamphetamine, sources of methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia in 2015 were the highest globally among regions, and for the first time, we overtook North America. Now that is saying something.

If you look at opium, Southeast Asia, together with East Asia, is the second-highest source of opium. If you look at ketamine, East Asia and Southeast Asia, the proportion of ketamine seized in this region as a proportion of what was seized in the world, in 2010, it was 65 per cent. In 2015, it was 97 per cent. If you look at new psychoactive substances (NPS), between 2009 and 2016, 739 new NPS were introduced. You know people are producing this, it’s a matter of chemical engineering all the time, to find new ways of producing drugs.


So on the one hand, you have the challenges that face us increasing, and on the other hand, public opinion is sought to be swayed in a number of ways. First by a number of states deciding that they cannot fight this anymore and so are taking a softer stance. Second, quite frankly, by those with an economic interest in it trying to push a softer line on drugs using seductive but cynical lines that it is somehow medically better.

Third, in the context of the tough laws that we have, for example in Singapore, trying to sway public opinion by romanticising individuals who have been involved in the drug trade without focusing on the larger problem. Let me explain a little bit.

When we talk about states, there are some states and activists all around the world including in Singapore, who propose policies to decriminalise or legalise drug use. In our view that is reckless, irresponsible, it’s a cop-out and it’s a step backward.

It will worsen the problem, it has worsened the problem in the countries that have taken these steps, and it will make it completely quite impossible for us, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) and the agencies to deal with this problem and it will make societies and the situation much worse.

The rhetoric around drugs that somehow it is medically alright to use, that it is acceptable, that it is not as bad as it is made out to be, but I think there are some aspects of drug use which are acceptable, has influenced in many parts of the world, many people, generally younger people, to take a softer approach to drugs.

Even in Singapore, which takes a zero-tolerance approach, we have detected some signs. The National Council Against Drug Abuse does a perception survey. If you look at young people between 13 and 21 in 2013, 11 per cent thought it was alright. And by 2016, that proportion has gone up to 16 per cent.

Because there is a very active campaign going on to influence the minds of people that it will be okay, you just try it out, it is recreational, some types of drugs are alright, you just try it out and then later on you can decide whether you want to carry on with it or not. What is not told is that you become addicted and that it impacts on your brain, and eventually there is only one way down for you.

So against this move internationally by states and well-funded campaigns funded by commercial entities but fronted by NGOs to push for a more liberal approach to drugs, I think those who stand on the side of taking a tough approach face a difficult task.

It is not an easy task because drugs are hugely profitable. In this region, drugs are being produced and sold because it makes a lot of money for those involved in the trade. It is consumed by people who find that access to drugs is becoming easier and more available.


For us, the framework we have taken is, first of all, a very tough legal framework which gives CNB and the agencies a lot of powers to investigate, arrest and deal with the problem. But laws alone are not going to help you.

Second we take a completely victim-centred approach in the sense that rehabilitation is the critical plan of our approach. For the abuser, we focus on rehabilitation and indeed we are going to go even more down that road. The persons we focus on from a legal angle, very severely, are the traffickers.

Because they are the ones who ruin lives, they are the ones who do it for profit. There is a whole value chain – the producers, the big drug king-pins and then of course the couriers, who know that they are sending a lot of people to death.

In that context, in many countries including Singapore, there is an argument centring on the death penalty. If you look at the death penalty, it is not the solution that solves all the problems, it doesn’t. It is a part of a total framework as I just explained.

You have to have your tough laws but you also have to focus on your rehabilitation. You have to focus on reducing supply and the death penalty comes within the context of trying to reduce the supply by making it clear to traffickers that if they get caught, they will face the death penalty.

That substantially reduces the number of people who seek to traffic drugs into Singapore. Because many people understand things about the Singapore system.

First, the likelihood that you will be caught is quite high. Second, the likelihood that you are caught, and then the agencies will prosecute you is quite high. And third, given the framework of laws, the likelihood that you will be found guilty and face the death penalty is also quite high. So the stakes are made very clear upfront. And that I think has a very powerful influence on those who seek to traffic drugs into Singapore

Let me digress a little and say a bit more about the death penalty abolitionists in this context. Around the world, including in Singapore, there are people who use a variety of arguments. Many of them are well-minded people, good people but when it comes to the death penalty, they focus on the person who has been found guilty of trafficking, they write romantic stories about them, they talk about the human interests, all of which may be true.

What they do not focus on are the thousands of people whose lives are ruined, whose families are ruined, and the undoubted number of deaths that will occur if you take a more liberal approach towards drugs. The rise in homicides, rise in crimes that lead to deaths, these are not theoretical arguments, you just look at the places where the drug situation has heightened, gotten out of control, or is under less control.

The United States for example, because of its size and because of its proximity to places which produce drugs, it is more difficult to control. The number of cities with homicides that are linked to drugs far outnumbers the number of people who might be on death row at any given time, proportionately. But that is never the focus of the abolitionists.

We in Singapore, I have said repeatedly, do not take any joy or comfort in having the death penalty, and nobody hopes or wants to have it imposed. We do it reluctantly, on the basis that it is for the greater good of society. Indeed, that it saves more lives. That is the rational on which we have it.

And as I look at the arguments that are presented against it, it is on the assumption that we can change these laws, we can remove these tough penalties, and yet everything else will remain the same.

I see a number of visitors, some from Europe. Let me put this down to you as well. In Singapore, the European Union (EU) through its commission and others, are very active in telling us what our laws ought to be, telling us for example that we should abolish the death penalty, that it is a crime against conscience.

You know, I have spoken with the EU members of parliament, they would not say it publicly but they tell me, to walk from the Parliament house in Brussels to their flat, the ladies would not do it by themselves. Because they would be accosted, often by druggies, it is not safe.

I have said this in many other forums. In Singapore, many of you would have children, you can send your 10-year-old child on public transport in Singapore without an adult accompanying and you know that the child will come back. You do not have a second thought about it. That is freedom.

That is the framework we have in Singapore. And I am lectured to change my laws and my framework to get into a situation which we know no parent will want.

So, I say to our activists, have a care when you want to change things, be objective in looking at the evidence.

I find that many of these discussions where the death penalty abolitionists come together, self-selected fora, we, the Government of Singapore, our people, our agencies, are happy and prepared to debate this at any forum, Western or Eastern, any forum in Singapore, with the death penalty abolitionists. But they do not want to debate with us.

They prefer to get a group of people who are like-minded, who are all abolitionists, and try to influence our students and universities and other places with self-selected research and self-selected arguments, without having to face facts. And I am sure that goes on in other countries around the region as well.

If you look at, for example, countries which have experimented, let’s take Colorado. Colorado is really, I think, an example where legalisation has gone wrong. There are many ways in which Colorado stands out for the negative consequences.

They had found that there were suddenly a lot of drivers who were driving under the influence of drugs, and a lot of them were dying in accidents. Leaving aside crime, something as simple as driving under the influence and dying in accidents, being maimed, being paralysed, lives lost – nobody counts these costs.

So I would ask the death penalty abolitionists to go and study the places where laws have been relaxed, places where drugs have been legalised, find out what has happened and look at the number of deaths that have taken place in society, and then come back and let’s talk.


Truth is, much of these arguments for legalisation, for going softer, for moving away from a zero tolerance approach, is irresponsible. Again the US opioid crisis is a good example. They allowed more relaxed use of opioids for prescription and a lot of people began to get prescribed, and what followed was of course addiction.

By 2015, every single day, more than 90 Americans were dying from overdosing on opioids. Imagine the thousands who are addicted and unable to lead a normal life. Imagine the thousands more who are causing harm to others in society.

This crisis was largely fuelled by people relying and accepting questionable evidence that opioids were benign painkillers. Today, for many advocates for the decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis, they use similar arguments.

But like in the US opioid crisis, their arguments are not substantiated by medical research or evidence. On the contrary, we studied the worldwide medical literature. We had the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) do a study of all literature on cannabis, which is responsible and published on proper journals. In fact, I had them present it at the United Nations.

They came to these conclusions based on the literature that is published – not just one article, but a variety of articles – proper research of all the articles that have been published.

The conclusions are (i) cannabis is addictive; (ii) it impacts on mental health and intelligence; and (iii) while cannabis can be used for certain conditions, medical literature does not support widespread use.

My point is this, look, you want to use cannabis for medical purposes? Let the medical associations and their respective countries push for it. If a doctor tells me that this is important for medical purposes, I am prepared to listen. But if a narcotics company or a company that produces drugs or an NGO comes and puts that forward, I will be sceptical. If you want to use it for medicine, let the doctor say so.

So it is easy for populations to be misled by these seductive arguments. So our fight against drugs can only be effective by the entire society coming together. It is going to be a tremendous effort. We need the entire Asia Pacific region, responsible people, NGOs, governments, agencies, coming together to work on this so that we can at least hold the line, if not push it back.

NGOs can exercise great influence. You can raise the awareness of the risks involved with decriminalisation. You can help educate the population, and education from a young age is critical. We all have to do that. We have to go to schools. We have got to go to them and put it across, not in a top-down way, but in a way that our young people will understand. We don’t want their lives to be destroyed. You don’t want their lives to be destroyed. This is very important.

Let us exchange viewpoints and let us always have an open mind, whether it is on the death penalty, or whether it is on the framework of laws, or whether it is on use of drugs as medicine, or the zero-tolerance policy. The best way to deal with all of this is also to have an open mind, not to be ideological about it.

Base ourselves on science both ways and then be prepared to change when change is necessary. But be prepared to argue our position when we know that we are right.

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