Schools, polys, unis set to get anti-drug kits

Second Minister for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli says youth are trying cannabis thinking it is less harmful and addictive than other drugs.
Second Minister for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli says youth are trying cannabis thinking it is less harmful and addictive than other drugs.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Task force may call for more celebrity envoys to fight the lure of cannabis

NEW anti-drug kits targeted at youth are expected to be rolled out at all educational institutions, including polytechnics and universities, as Singapore looks to arrest the lure of cannabis, which is gaining acceptance in some parts of the world.

And more celebrity ambassadors such as Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan, whose own son was convicted on a drug charge, may be roped in to lend their star power to the anti-drug message.

These are among the recommendations likely to be made to the Government by a task force formed last year to tackle the growing problem of youth drug abuse.

Speaking to The Straits Times ahead of the release of its findings tomorrow, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli, who chaired the task force, said the typical profile of young cannabis abusers is different from those who abuse other drugs, such as heroin.

"For the first time, the profile of drug users is atypical of what we've been seeing all this time - dysfunctional families, school dropouts, a network of family members who are also drug addicts," he said.

Young cannabis abusers, he said, are instead likely to be better educated, come from more well-to-do backgrounds, and are likely influenced by a friend to try the drug, which is also known as marijuana.

"So, it's a clustering effect... They're just trying it out and giving it to each other," he added. "We've found a good number of clusters over the last few months, and I think it is alarming."

These youth typically try cannabis thinking it is less harmful and addictive than other drugs. They are also influenced by the trend of cannabis legalisation overseas and online advocates touting its purported health benefits.

Said Mr Masagos: "Literature is going out, confusing our youth to believe that cannabis is not addictive, and glamourising it."

The task force, which he chaired together with Minister of State for Education Sim Ann, conducted surveys involving 700 youth, including drug abusers.

According to Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) statistics, the number of drug abusers below 30 has grown steadily over the years.

A total of 1,093 drug abusers arrested last year were from this age group, more than double the figure a decade ago. And two-thirds of first-time drug abusers arrested last year came from this age group.

Mr Masagos said: "Youth are particularly vulnerable to addiction if they start early. And then the drug becomes a gateway to ice, and even heroin... You just need a bigger and bigger fix."

To tackle emerging trends, the task force is looking at more targeted anti-drug approaches.

He added: "We need to develop toolkits, particularly for parents, so they don't take it for granted that just because I'm a lawyer, I'm a doctor, my children will never fall for drugs."

Universities may be encouraged to hand out advisories at matriculation and before students go on overseas exchange programmes to remind them that they can be convicted of abusing drugs overseas.

Last year, 64 people, up from 47 in 2013 - a 36 per cent increase - were arrested at checkpoints after urine tests showed they had been abusing drugs.

Former drug abusers may also be asked to share their testimonies with students more frequently, said Mr Masagos.

Even as the authorities explore various ways to stem the drug menace, he said the Government will remain resolute in its zero-tolerance stance towards drug abuse.

The shift towards a "harm reduction" approach in some countries, he said, is a consequence of their failure in the war against drugs. Hence, the shift in emphasis towards dealing with secondary problems arising from drug abuse, such as the spread of HIV.

Mr Masagos said: "We all have to decide for ourselves what society we want. So far, we have a zero-tolerance approach to drug abuse and the community at the moment is still behind us... We are doing this to save our nation, to save our children."

Mr Masagos said his own cousin died from a drug overdose in the 70s. "My personal conviction is we should not move away from this approach."

"We've been successful, and we should not mimic other countries, which have other problems and other reasons for not having a zero-tolerance approach."

amirh@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Schools, polys, unis set to get anti-drug kits'. Print Edition | Subscribe