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The Danger of Singapore’s “Harm Prevention” Approach to Drugs

As dawn broke on November 18, 2016, Chijioke Stephen Obioha – a 31 year-old chemistry graduate and aspiring football player – was hanged in Singapore’s notorious Changi Prison. Obioha had received a mandatory death sentence because he had been found in possession of 2.6kg of cannabis.

Singapore has some of the harshest drug policies in the world, and continues to enforce mandatory death sentences for individuals who have committed any one of a range of drug-related offences.

Singaporean authorities claim that the implementation of such draconian measures has been successful at reducing drug offences in the country, and have shown no intention of bowing to pressure to change from the United Nations, civil society, or foreign governments.

“A [death] penalty will be in the books if we believe it to be right. And it will be removed if we believe that removal is the right thing to do. And not because of any international pressure,” claims Desmond Lee, a Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development.

Indeed, on March 13, Lee unveiled further details of Singapore’s approach to drug offences – highlighting the city state’s opposition to health and human rights-oriented drug policies that have been advocated by experts, and increasingly accepted in Europe.

Speaking at the 60th Session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, Austria, Lee described his country’s counter-narcotic strategy: “harm prevention”.

While harm reduction involves policies that reduce the potential harms of drug use, harm prevention aims to stop harms from occurring by preventing drug use in the first place.

Singapore’s harm prevention strategy, Lee claimed, is three-pronged; consisting of education, law enforcement, and rehabilitation.

The first tenet involves “engaging parents, educators and the wider community to create an environment where drugs have no place in our lives”.

Rather than a useful education programme, this approach appears more akin to indoctrinating young people with a mind-set that actually increases the potential harms of drug use.

The rhetoric suggests that someone who uses drugs has no place in society, thus stigmatising the individual. This can lead to a plethora of harms – including the marginalisation of already vulnerable people, as well as the fear of seeking help for problematic drug use.

Tellingly, there is an ongoing increase in the number of people who use drugs in Singapore, according to the Minister for Home Affairs. The rise, he says, is particularly pronounced among people under the age of 30.

The second prong of the Singaporean approach highlights the hypocrisy in dubbing this strategy harm prevention; it involves, according to Lee, “tough, swift, and uncompromising… robust enforcement”.

People can face extraordinarily long prison sentences for seemingly minor infractions, including the presence of drugs in one’s blood stream.

It is illegal for Singaporeans to consume drugs, even when outside Singapore, and they can be subject to urine tests by police at any time and without a warrant.

In 2015, a young Singaporean man was imprisoned for six months, partly as a result of testing positive for cannabis following a trip to Amsterdam. The maximum sentence for such an offence is ten years in prison.

Of course, as was the case with Chijioke Obioha, the government exacts the harshest punishments upon those alleged to have trafficked drugs. This was also the case for Devendran Supramaniam, a Malaysian man executed by the state in late 2016 for importing 83 grams of heroin.

The final element of harm prevention – as Lee describes – is “mandatory treatment and rehabilitation” for people who use drugs.

The use of compulsory rehabilitation for people with problematic drug use has been slammed by many expert bodies. In 2012, the United Nations called on all countries to close such facilities, warning that “there is no evidence that these centres represent a favourable or effective environment for the treatment of drug dependence”

Indeed, a report published by the Lancet in 2016 suggested that people with problematic opioid use are more likely to relapse if they are forced into a compulsory rehabilitation centre than if they are offered voluntary methadone treatment.

The UN has called for all mandatory treatment centres to be replaced with "voluntary evidence-informed and rights-based" services instead.

Nonetheless, Singaporean officials appear to be confident in their approach, and show no signs of changing their futile pursuit of becoming a nation that is “free of drugs”. 

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