SINGAPORE - Troubled teenagers have become targets for drug traffickers who would get them hooked on drugs before turning them into "runners" to peddle illegal substances to other teens, said lawyers.
Lawyers told The Straits Times they have seen more of such cases in recent years.
Some traffickers would even offer drugs free to these teenagers just to get them addicted. They would approach young people at places like pubs and game arcades in places including Geylang, Bugis and Tanjong Pagar.
To tackle the problem, new laws were introduced in May to specifically target those who recruit young or vulnerable persons to commit drug offences.
Offenders who get young people under the age of 21 to traffic Class A drugs - which include heroin and methamphetamine or "Ice" - could be punished with a minimum jail term of 10 years and 10 strokes of the cane.
The new laws were passed even though there has been a dip in the number of youth drug abusers arrested.
Last year, 190 drug abusers under the age of 20 were arrested, down from 260 in 2011. But the number is still higher than the 163 caught in 2010.
Explaining the need to beef up the laws, a Central Narcotics Bureau spokesman said: "Impressionable young or vulnerable persons may be exploited by drug traffickers into getting involved in drug activities in the belief that such young or vulnerable abusers or traffickers can either get away with the offence or would likely face reduced penalties if convicted."
"Amy", 19, is one such victim.
After failing her O-level examination this year, she found a job in a Telok Blangah pub. There, she was introduced to drugs by her friends.
"I felt aimless in my life and followed my friends in what they did," Amy told The Straits Times from the Drug Rehabilitation Centre last month.
She was arrested in April in possession of 25 nimetazepam pills, one packet of Ice, and utensils intended for drug consumption. She claimed that the items were all for her own use.
There are no official statistics on troubled teens turned runners. But Ms Gloria James of law firm Civetta said she has seen many such cases through the e-mail blast to lawyers from the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which gets lawyers to take up cases pro bono. Referring to how traffickers target teenagers, Ms James said: "It is like laying a trap."
Criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam of Hilborne Law LLC said he has come across about 15 such cases this year, compared to fewer than 10 cases a few years ago.
Troubled teens are easy targets for drug traffickers, said criminal lawyer Josephus Tan of Patrick Tan LLC. "In their youthful naivety, these offenders might not fully appreciate the legal repercussions that follow," he said. "It then becomes a vicious circle where these young offenders would see drug trafficking or consumption as a way out of their financial or emotional predicaments.
"When that happens, it is like hitting the jackpot for the syndicates."
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