Tough laws, death penalty key in battling drug abuse in Singapore: PM Lee

PM Lee holding up a book commemorating the CNB’s 50th anniversary. He is flanked by Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam (left) and CNB director Ng Ser Song.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Tough laws against drug abuse - with the death penalty for serious drug offences - and robust enforcement have been pivotal in keeping the number of drug abusers low, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Dec 7).

He noted that Singapore is under increasing pressure to consider legalising drugs. Elsewhere, many countries that have been unable to control their domestic drug situation have decided to legalise drugs, in particular cannabis, in a bid to regain some control.

"But we have no intention of doing so. We must decide what works for Singapore, and not just follow what others are doing," he said.

Speaking at an event at Goodwood Park Hotel to mark the Central Narcotics Bureau's (CNB) 50th anniversary, PM Lee outlined the agency's three key strategies to battle the drug scourge, and set out the challenges ahead.

The first strategy was to enact tough anti-drug laws, he said.

In the first 10 months after the CNB was formed on Oct 19, 1971, it conducted more than 1,000 raids and seized about 200kg of cannabis and over 2,200 methaqualone pills.

But despite regular raids, drug traffickers and abusers were undeterred as the penalties were too low, he said.

In 1973, the Government enacted the Misuse of Drugs Act, which introduced harsher penalties for drug pushers and traffickers, and allowed drug addicts to be detained for treatment and rehabilitation.

"But the pivotal change came in 1975, when we introduced the death penalty for the most serious drug offences, in particular for trafficking more than 15g of diamorphine, or pure heroin," said PM Lee.

"The deterrent effect of this harsh penalty was soon felt. Drug traffickers became much less willing to bring drugs into Singapore."

Over the years, CNB has continually improved its surveillance and enforcement capabilities, he said, adding that it will have to use technology "to the full" to tackle new threats and drug supply methods like e-commerce services.

The other key planks of CNB's strategy are rehabilitation and sustained public education, he noted.

Exhibits at the event marking the Central Narcotics Bureau's 50th anniversary. 
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Noting that tough laws are not sufficient to win the fight against drugs, PM Lee said: "Public education is an equally important part in this war, if not the most crucial part. Through effective public education, we can stem drug abuse upstream before it causes more troublesome social problems."

CNB works with the Ministry of Education, schools and non-governmental organisations to organise activities such as talks and exhibitions to educate children early.

As a result of its strict anti-drug approach, Singapore is relatively drug-free today with the number of drug abusers arrested annually falling to about half that in the mid-1990s, he said.

The Republic's drug situation contrasts sharply against countries with more permissive approaches, he said, citing the opiod crisis in the United States, which has seen nearly 500,000 people die from opioid overdose from 1999 to 2019.

Highlighting future challenges, PM Lee cautioned against the harm-reduction approach advocated by many countries, which encourages "safer" use of drugs.

He pointed to Singapore's "painful lesson" from Subutex, which was introduced in 2002 as a legal prescription to treat opioid addiction.

Some people started abusing Subutex as an alternative to heroin, and the number of Subutex abusers and deaths associated with it increased significantly within a few years, he said.

Abusers were also discarding their needles in public areas, which put people at risk of getting hurt or contracting a disease.

Subutex was subsequently listed as a controlled drug in 2006, with CNB mounting operations to wipe the drug out from the streets.

A commemorative stamp set and book were launched to mark CNB's 50th anniversary.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

PM Lee also flagged the worrying trend of how the attitudes of young people towards drugs are gradually becoming more liberal.

"CNB therefore needs to strengthen our national drug education efforts," he said, adding that everyone has a part to play by correcting misinformation about drugs and speaking up against drug abuse.

"Collectively as a nation, we must continue to understand, believe in, and support Singapore's zero-tolerance approach towards drugs."

At the event, PM Lee launched a commemorative stamp set, which features key anti-drug messages as reminders of CNB's commitment to a drug-free Singapore.

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This article was first published in The Straits TimesPermission required for reproduction.