Drug busters to get more muscle to fight new scourge
Stricter laws in the offing to combat threat of new psychoactive substances that can mimic heroin and cocaine
They mimic the effects of traditional drugs like cocaine, cannabis and heroin, and are sold with street names like Pink, Spice and Mushroom.
Hardly known here a decade ago, the class of drugs known as New Psychoactive Substances, or NPS, has since grown in popularity.
Like many other countries, Singapore has found itself locked in a cat-and-mouse game with sophisticated syndicates and rogue chemists who swiftly produce new variants of the drugs and avoid detection with just a tweak to the chemical structures.
But a review of the drug laws here, announced by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health Amrin Amin during the debate on the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) budget yesterday, will give the authorities more teeth to fight this growing scourge.
Noting this trend and a shift among young Singaporeans towards a more liberal attitude to drugs, Mr Amrin said Singapore is not immune to the worsening global drug situation.
The number of different NPS drugs detected worldwide has jumped seven-fold from 126 in 2009 to 892 at the end of 2018.
Locally, NPS drugs have become the second-most abused among new offenders and the third-most overall, with 414 or 11.7 per cent of drug abusers taking NPS last year.
Three in five new abusers arrested last year were below 30, and an MHA survey found one in five young people thought cannabis should be legalised.
Said Mr Amrin: "More countries are legalising drug abuse or are considering to do so. The media fuels this legalisation wave... Pro-legalisation camps also conveniently ignore the social costs - lives lost, families destroyed, increased crimes.
"More than ever, we need strict laws to stay ahead of drug trends, (we also need) robust enforcement, and effective preventive drug education."
To tackle the NPS problem, the authorities have been proactively listing the various types in the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) since 2010.
There are now 12 generic groups and 143 individually-named NPS drugs listed as Class A controlled drugs, which are an offence to traffic, manufacture, import, export, possess or consume.
The MDA was also amended in 2013 to allow temporary listings of NPS drugs for up to a year.
This allows consultation with stakeholders to determine if the substance needs to be classified as a controlled drug.
Though the trafficking, manufacturing, possessing or consumption of these temporarily-listed drugs does not constitute an offence, Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers may seize them to prevent circulation and investigate the cases.
But with the speed at which NPS drugs are concocted, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said the MDA needs to outlaw new NPS variants fast enough to add an extra deterrent effect.
Mr Amrin said more details about the legal review will be announced in due course, adding that strict laws and robust enforcement required the people's backing.
Effective preventive drug education is key to this, and from pre-school, facts about drugs are taught through storytelling and activities, he added.
An Anti-Drug Ambassador Activity booklet was used by more than 48,000 primary school pupils last year, while 60 secondary schools have been offered an after-school anti-drug engagement programme. A cartoon activity book for pre-schoolers will be ready next month.
Information and infographics are also made available on CNB's website and social media platforms to counter misinformation about cannabis. An information booklet for educators will also be ready this year.
The authorities have been working with various groups including LGBTQ+ people, ethnic communities, and parent groups.
Said Mr Amrin: "To win community support, a one-way exchange of information will not be enough.
"At the heart of what we do is to speak with our people frankly, give them the facts, hear them out, and involve them to co-create and deliver."
Synthetic drug use linked to health problems
New psychoactive substances (NPS) is an umbrella term for unregulated substances or products that have no known medical or industrial use and are designed to mimic the psychoactive effects of controlled drugs such as cannabis, heroin and methamphetamine.
These synthetic drugs are made by modifying the molecular structure of chemicals in the existing drugs.
About 130 different NPS have been used here since 2011, with the Central Narcotics Bureau's (CNB) website citing such examples as "smoking blends" - botanical materials or herbs that are usually rolled up with cigarette paper and smoked - and tablets that are passed off as Ecstasy or as "bath salts".
Little is known about the adverse health effects and social harms of NPS, but their use is often linked to health problems.
Abusers may experience seizures, paranoia, hallucinations and acute psychosis.
In Hong Kong, toxicologists identified 22 different NPS in 111 cases of drug poisonings from January 2009 to December 2017, while in Britain, NPS was linked to 60 deaths in 2013, according to the World Health Organisation.
The threat posed by NPS to Singapore was first noted in 2009, and CNB has been proactively listing NPS under the Misuse of Drugs Act since 2010, when just three NPS were listed individually.
Now NPS can be listed temporarily for up to a year, with a possible extension of another year, and both generic and individual listing approaches have been adopted.
A generic listing specifies the core molecular structure and substitution patterns, allowing CNB to control a large number of closely related substances.
Other countries have adopted other legal responses.
Austria, Ireland, Romania, New Zealand and Britain have passed laws that specifically target psychoactive substances.
Other nations such as Finland and the Netherlands have also used medicine legislation, or other laws such as poison acts and consumer safety regulations, to control NPS. - KOK YUFENG