"I thought drugs won't affect me"

He was a quiet student who had average grades in secondary school.

But when Leonard (not his real name) went on to polytechnic, he met a group of friends who would change his life for the worst.

Recalling this dark period in his life, the 20-year-old barista said: "I knew they used weed (cannabis) and Ice (methamphetamine).

"I never thought I would join them."

He ended up trying both drugs.

Last year, Leonard, who was in his second year at polytechnic, was caught possessing cannabis during a routine police road-block.

He was sentenced to a year at a drug rehabilitation centre (DRC), but was released after six months for good behaviour in February.

He now wears a tag which tracks his compliance with a stipulated curfew timing.

The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) recently released disturbing statistics about drug usage in Singapore.

The number of those below 20 arrested for drug offences went up from 79 in 2007 to 257 last year.

The number of new drug abusers aged below 20 arrested also increased, from 74 in 2007 to 225 last year.

Psychiatrists The New Paper spoke to are not surprised by this trend.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, a private practice psychiatrist specialising in addiction, said: "Unfortunately, sometimes this is cyclical and we seem to be in an upswing right now.

"Also, in the past, we used to have more young folk using glue or inhalants - this trend is dropping, but the trend of actual drug usage is rising."

Psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre said the perceived risk of taking drugs is seen as lower when more people indulge, and this is a possible reason for the upward trend.

Seizures of Ice last year shot up by 151 per cent from 2010 due to a greater supply of the substance in the region.

Growing affluence levels in South-east Asia has made the region a more attractive target for drug syndicates to ply their trade.

Well-off taking up habit

Well-off taking up habit

Dr Winslow also said he is seeing more young people who are well-off experimenting with drugs.

Ms Joyce Chan, the executive director of halfway house Teen Challenge, had similar observations too.

She said: "There are more (drug abusers) who come from well-to-do families... Generally in Singapore, most of the teens (taking drugs) come from middle-income families and above."

Social media has also been fingered as the tool that makes taking drugs seem acceptable. Dr Winslow said: "Young people are engaged on social media which portrays drug taking as cool, or recreational, or euphoric, without talking about the downside.

"Also, young folk have more access to drug info, both with new media and through their peers, than before."

Curiosity and thrill-seeking in young people also contributes to the trend of increased drug usage, said Mr Koh.

Substance abuse is also being used by young people as a "coping mechanism".

Mr Koh said: "It is used to deal with emotional or psychological issues or problems, to feel better or to relax, for pleasure-seeking or for other means."

Peer pressure and a sense of belonging is also important to young people, since they want to be seen as "grown up", he added.

An inter-ministry task force on drugs was setup in October to tackle the alarming development of more repeat and new young drug abusers.

It has recommended targeted prevention by spreading the anti-drug message to those in the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities and full-time national service.

The task force also recommends segregation of high-risk inmates from lower-risk ones in DRCs.

Leonard said many of his friends have ended up behind bars for drug offences. He said: "I really regret taking the drugs because it disrupted my education. I had to quit polytechnic to serve my jail sentence.

"My parents were really disappointed when they found out and they didn't talk to me for a long time. I hope no one has to go through that."

This article was first published in The New Paper.