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The Straits Times says

Soft drug policies a risky addiction

The long war on drugs is taking its toll elsewhere, it seems, with some countries pushing for a less hardline approach. What the new approach, euphemistically named "harm reduction", embodies in reality is that the war is already half lost. It assumes that since a world free of drugs is plausibly impossible, policies should be tailored to minimise the harm associated with their use. The approach includes the provision of clean needles for drug abusers and supervised injection sites.

An associated development is the relaxation of sanctions on certain drugs. Four states in the United States have legalised the sale of recreational marijuana. Canada's plan to legalise access to the drug (although regulating and restricting it) indicates the problematic direction being taken by some developed countries. This shift away from prohibition and criminalisation in liberal jurisdictions is occurring in spite of the fact that the use of cannabis is associated with possible health problems that include cognitive and respiratory impairment and psychotic episodes. Here, again, is an instance of a mindset which implies that, since the use of all drugs cannot be controlled completely, the authorities ought to let "softer" drugs off the hook and focus on the lethal varieties.

This is defeatism masquerading as realism. Once the addictive and destructive potential of a drug is clear, a criminal justice approach that enforces abstinence should be strictly adopted rather than half-hearted policies that send out mixed signals on the direction ahead.

Singapore's anti-drug war is based on its own experience of having once been a haven for the scourge. Drugs ravaged individuals, families and society at large. Drug abuse made addicts incapable of performing as responsible citizens and fomented a culture of exploitation and gang-related violence. Hence Singapore's zero-tolerance approach as embodied in the Misuse of Drugs Act, which criminalises the trafficking, manufacturing, import and export, possession and consumption of controlled drugs.

In the face of trends elsewhere, Singapore has to make clear its unambiguous rejection of any shift in the global war on drugs. Soft approaches might well represent the thin edge of the wedge as similar thinking might creep into how other persistent social ills are tackled. By tolerating lesser evils, the state and society might wind up doing more to mitigate their effects in different social spheres. Rolling back measures might prove difficult after harmful acts are decriminalised. There is a place, of course, for "soft" strategies like the rehabilitation of drug offenders which remains a tenet of Singapore's anti-narcotics philosophy. But the nation simply cannot afford to view drugs as a lifestyle choice, just because others are doing so. No one knows this better than a parent or spouse of a sad victim of drug abuse.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Soft drug policies a risky addiction'. Print Edition | Subscribe