Pubdate: Wed, 16 Mar 2016
Source: Straits Times (Singapore)
Copyright: 2016 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.
Author: Danson Cheong


Singapore's uncompromising stance against drugs is the reason it has 
stayed relatively drug-free, with arrested drug abusers comprising 
less than 0.1 per cent of the country's population.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee said this on 
Monday at a meeting of international delegates, at the United Nations 
Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, Austria.

The event is a preparatory meeting for the upcoming UN General 
Assembly Special Session on the world's drug problem next month, when 
members will set goals for global drug control in the next decade.

Mr Lee rejected calls that the drug problem be framed purely as a 
"public health issue", pointing out that there were also public 
security concerns. If drug abuse takes root, "the wider community 
pays a hefty price in terms of crime," he said, adding that Singapore 
would persevere in its stance, despite some countries moving towards 
a liberal "harm reduction" approach to drugs.

"The harm reduction approach, with programmes such as needle exchange 
or opiate substitution, is not relevant in our context... We also do 
not support calls for drug decriminalisation or legalisation. This is 
not applicable to societies that are relatively drug-free," he said.

He also rejected legalising cannabis for medical or recreational use.

He referenced two recent studies done by Singapore experts that, he 
said, supported Singapore's "harm prevention" approach.

Commissioned by the Ministry of Home Affairs last year, the studies 
were done by researchers from the Duke-NUS Medical School and 
Institute of Mental Health (IMH). The first study compared 
Singapore's approach to "harm reduction" policies in 11 other 
countries - such as Australia, Canada and Thailand.

Adjunct Professor Stella Quah from the Duke-NUS Medical School helmed 
the study and said harm reduction was focused on reducing the 
transmission of HIV through needle-exchange programmes.

"(Harm reduction) started as a desperate measure way back in the 
1980s; doctors in the United States noted that HIV and Aids 
infections were spreading most rapidly... particularly (among) those 
who inject drugs," said Prof Quah, speaking at a media briefing last week.

"In their opinion, it was not possible to convince drug addicts to 
stop their addiction; they thought it was more practical to give them 
clean needles instead." But the approach has had little impact on 
stemming the spread of diseases such as Aids and hepatitis C, she noted.

The second study, a literature review of over 500 academic papers on 
medical cannabis, pointed out that its benefits were not clear.

Dr Jimmy Lee, a consultant at IMH's department of general psychiatry 
who chaired the study, said despite claims that cannabis works for 
certain conditions - such as chemotherapy-induced nausea - there were 
proven alternatives, and there was no reason for cannabis to be a 
"first-line treatment".

He added that while there was some medical evidence in favour of its 
use, more robust studies needed to be done. "Any potential benefit 
has to be weighed against the known negative effects," he said.

Abusers risked irreversible brain damage and psychiatric disorders.

But one of the chemicals in cannabis, cannabidiol - which is neither 
addictive nor psychoactive  appears to have beneficial effects on 
anxiety and psychotic symptoms, and was a promising area of research.

The abuse of cannabis, or marijuana, is a growing problem among young 
drug users here. Among first-time drug abusers, cannabis is the 
second-most abused drug, after methamphetamine, or Ice, according to 
latest Central Narcotics Bureau statistics.

Dr Thomas Lee, an addictions specialist at The Resilienz Clinic, said 
there was "insufficient empirical data" on cannabis' medical 
benefits. "Conversely there is ample research evidence to show 
cannabis is harmful to all aspects of health," he said.

In his speech on Monday, Mr Lee said: "We believe in harm 
prevention... We want a drug-free society, not a drug-tolerant one."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom