Singapore has no intention of legalizing drugs despite that it is “under increasing pressure, both externally and internally [to do so],” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Lee was addressing the 50th anniversary of the Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore (CNB) on Dec. 7, 2021.
In his speech, the prime minister acknowledged that Singapore will face challenges in drug control because “the trend in many countries is to legalize drugs, in particular cannabis, for recreational use.”
Singapore has remained relatively “drug-free” with the number of drug abusers arrested annually dropping to half the level in the mid-1990s, according to Lee.
The improved drug situation partly owes to the hardline stance Singapore has adopted against illicit drugs. “Tough laws” and “robust enforcement” are two key factors.
The death penalty was introduced in 1975 for the most serious drug offenses such as trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin. The change it brought about was drastic.
Drug traffickers used to openly sell small bottles of heroin in certain areas of Singapore, but with the harsh penalty, they were reluctant to bring drugs into the country, forcing drug abusers to purchase and smuggle illicit drugs from the neighboring state of Malaysia into Singapore in small quantities.
Pressure to Legalize Drugs
Singapore is under pressure to legalize drugs due to the increasing trend in many other countries to do so, but the prime minister stressed that “we have no intention of doing so. We must decide what works for Singapore, and not just follow what others are doing.”
He warned that drug legalization “can easily go awry, despite their best intentions,” citing the hard lesson Singapore has learned in the 2000s.
Subutex was introduced to Singapore for treating opioid dependence in 2002, which unintentionally led to a surge in the number of Subutex abusers and related deaths later on. Needles discarded in public places by Subutex abusers could also harm young children and the elderly.
“We decided to put a stop to this. In 2006, Singapore listed Subutex as a controlled drug, and CNB mounted swift operations to wipe out Subutex from our streets.
“We learned a painful lesson from Subutex,” said Lee.
Lee cautioned against a “very worrying trend” that youths in Singapore are having “more liberal” attitudes toward drugs according to annual surveys by the National Council Against Drug Abuse (NCADA).
He named youths’ exposure to “alternative lifestyles on social media” to be an underlying factor.
“Drug use may be glamorized, giving the impression that using drugs is harmless, or even cool,” said the prime minister.
But the cultural influence on youths’ attitudes toward drugs is not new to Singapore.
“In the late 1960s, after Singapore became independent, ‘hippie culture’ swept across much of the world. Elements of this lifestyle found their way into Singapore. The culture began to take hold amongst our youths.
“Drugs like methaqualone (MX) pills, cannabis, and heroin were readily available. Pot parties were rampant. Young people were popping MX pills at tea dances and nightclubs, and this took a toll on health and lives. Drug abusers were often found lying dead on the streets. Some suffered from overdoses or severe allergic reactions. Others were killed in traffic accidents while high on drugs,” said Lee.
The CNB was then established in 1971 as a dedicated agency to tackle drug issues.
In his speech, the prime minister also discussed how setting up “a rigorous rehabilitation regime” and providing “a comprehensive and sustained public education program” has been part of the CNB’s strategies in its fight against drugs.