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US’ drug experience shows why Singapore needs tough and clear approach on narcotics: Shanmugam

The opioid crisis in the United States and its growing cannabis problems underscore why Singapore must take a “firm and clear-headed” approach on drugs or the problem will “spiral out of control” and tear society apart, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday (Sept 15).

Mr Shanmugam, seen here at Saturday's event with Prisons Commissioner Desmond Chin and Homes Affairs and Health Senior Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin, says that Singapore is vulnerable as a transit point and import market for drugs.

Mr Shanmugam, seen here at Saturday's event with Prisons Commissioner Desmond Chin and Homes Affairs and Health Senior Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin, says that Singapore is vulnerable as a transit point and import market for drugs.

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SINGAPORE – The opioid crisis in the United States and its growing cannabis problems underscore why Singapore must take a “firm and clear-headed” approach on drugs or the problem will “spiral out of control” and tear society apart, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday (Sept 15).

The international drug situation “is very serious”, Mr Shanmugam said, noting how almost 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US in 2016, or 175 people a day.

“Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal,” he added.

Last year, one in seven adults in America used cannabis, with one in four people between the ages of 18 and 29 taking the drug.

Following the legalisation of recreational cannabis in the state of Colorado, the number of cannabis-related hospitalisations has also jumped by more than 70 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of deaths caused by drivers high on cannabis more than doubled from 2013 to 2016, he pointed out.

In Singapore, the Government adopts a “tough line” on the issue as there is a cost to society, said Mr Shanmugam, pointing out that more than 80 per cent of 9,000 offenders in the prisons here have drug antecedents.

“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,” said Mr Shanmugam at the Yellow Ribbon Community Project annual appreciation luncheon.

“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.”

He noted that the drug problem in the US is caused by four key factors driven by money – pharmaceutical companies, state interests, the media, and dubious research.

Citing news reports, Mr Shanmugam said that major pharmaceutical companies have irresponsibly pushed addictive opioids into the homes of millions of Americans, with sales representatives taught to aggressively target inexperienced doctors, and persuading them to prescribe opioids for health issues such as cancer and 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,” said Mr Shanmugam.

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

Big pharmaceutical firms are among the top three in terms of lobbying spending in the US, with US$25.4 million (S$34.9 million) spent on lobbying US Congress in 2017 alone and millions more on lobbying at the state level.

Mr Shanmugam said that this has resulted in the country’s government becoming beholden to them.

The government then “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”.

The blame also falls on the media, as it has perpetuated the impression that drugs are harmless, and in the case of cannabis, “not just benign, but beneficial”, said Mr Shanmugam.
Over time, there “has been a deliberate shift” in the narrative that cannabis is a cure for conditions such as opioid abuse and epilepsy.

He noted that the Washington Post, for instance, ran almost 200 articles in the last five years, connecting cannabis to the treatment for such conditions. The New York Times did likewise.
“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,” he added.

Another factor is what Mr Shanmugam called “dubious research”, which fuels the perception that cannabis is beneficial, instead of harmful.

Such research also claims that health risks brought about by cannabis use are overstated and its medical uses overlooked.

The confluence of these various factors has culminated 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’,” said Mr Shanmugam.

Turning to Singapore, he noted that the Republic is vulnerable as a transit point and import market for drugs, given that it is part of a “challenging region”, which includes the Golden Triangle.

Mr Shanmugam said that heroin and methamphetamine trafficking in the region alone is estimated to generate over US$32 billion annually, making it attractive to international criminal syndicates.

“We have therefore adopted a position that protects our people – unyielding and clear,” he added.

“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.”

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