The Straits Times says

Guard against lure of insidious drugs

Some countries are legalising the use of certain pernicious drugs, like cannabis, but Singapore cannot afford to contemplate that prospect. Not after having struggled with drug abuse since its founding. Indeed, it was a distribution centre for opium during colonial times. By the time its British rulers awoke to the need for anti-drug laws, addiction had worked its way through society, leading to various forms of experimentation, even among schoolchildren. That prompted the setting up of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in 1971. Over four decades later, the agency is still waging war against the scourge.

Worryingly, the latest statistics show that 70 per cent of new drug abusers arrested last year were aged under 30. Methamphetamine and heroin are the two most commonly abused drugs; others are cannabis, "Ecstasy", ketamine and nimetazepam. The persistence of illicit drug use is reason enough for CNB to stay the course. However, the long-running efforts of the authorities are being turned on their heads elsewhere and portrayed as a futile war. Proponents cite this to justify the legalisation of cannabis. Uruguay's decision to allow its use might be ignored but as Canadians look at liberal policies, there is a concern that the arguments voiced might turn seductive.

Medicinal cannabis, which offers some relief for those suffering from cancer and multiple sclerosis, has been legally sold in California since 1996, prompting other American states to follow suit. Once an accessible distribution system is worked out, it does not take much for calls to arise for the legalisation of the drug for recreational purposes. That has indeed happened in Colorado which now sees hordes of American students travelling there to sample "pot" bought from a dispensary (offering coupons and loyalty points) and smoked in cannabis-friendly hotels. Commerce has also led to marijuana cooking courses, hash cookies, marijuana-smoked salmon, cannabis-laced drinks and vaping products.

Even if one imposes certain limits to its marketing, there is no denying the recreational use of cannabis in whatever form poses safety and health risks. It can degrade the performance of road users, workers and others. And it can impair teen brain development, induce dependence, increase anxiety and depression, and affect the heart and lungs, according to CNB.

Liberal approaches to drug control are inherently flawed as they might be rolled back later when tighter measures like distribution curbs and more protection for children and teens are called for. Singapore is better off not going round in circles. A consistent regime (the law acting as "a pincer by deterring both trafficking and consumption", as an MP noted), community education and rehabilitation of offenders must remain the core strategy here to combat insidious drug abuse.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'Guard against lure of insidious drugs'. Print Edition | Subscribe