More Singapore youth seeking help for cannabis abuse

Jack (not his real name), was 15 and doing fine at school when he got his hands on cannabis via neighbourhood friends and started smoking it once a week. He was nabbed by narcotics officers late last year.
Jack (not his real name), was 15 and doing fine at school when he got his hands on cannabis via neighbourhood friends and started smoking it once a week. He was nabbed by narcotics officers late last year.
Many counsellors, such as Sana's Ms Shakila Kresinin, believe there should be a more proactive approach in confronting the problem.
Many counsellors, such as Sana's Ms Shakila Kresinin, believe there should be a more proactive approach in confronting the problem.ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG

Cases of young people influenced by growing acceptance of drug overseas a worrying trend

It was a National Geographic documentary he watched at home on television that got him believing that smoking cannabis could help with his attention deficit disorder (ADD).

The documentary featured the supposed medicinal uses of the drug.

Jack (not his real name), was 15 then and doing fine at school, with parents who were working professionals. Through neighbourhood friends, he got his hands on the drug and started smoking it once a week.

He was nabbed by narcotics officers late last year in the Housing Board flat where he lived. Now a 17-year-old student at the Institute of Technical Education, he was put on urine supervision and made to undergo counselling.

Cases such as his - young people being influenced by the growing acceptance of the drug overseas - are increasingly worrying the authorities and addiction counsellors.

  • 70% - Nearly 70 per cent of new drug abusers arrested last year were below 30, based on Central Narcotics Bureau statistics.

    252 - Number of new drug cases seen by National Addictions Management Service last year involving people aged below 30, compared with 136 in 2014.

    13 - Average number of young people the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association has been dealing with each month since last November. Between January and July last year, it saw only about four such cases on average each month.

Statistics released last Monday by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) said nearly 70 per cent of new drug abusers arrested last year were aged below 30. Among first-timers, cannabis has also become the second-most abused drug.

  • Jailed, caned and divorced because of his drug addiction

  • He started smoking cannabis at the age of 11 - and continued to do so for more than two decades.

    Now, 43-year-old Joe Tan, a care worker in a halfway house, says drugs cost him "everything".

    His first puff was with friends in a lion dance group he belonged to. They pooled their money to buy the drug, smoking it every day using a modified apparatus.

    "We often mixed it with tobacco," he told The Sunday Times. "We didn't think it was a big deal."

    In 1990, the death penalty was extended to trafficking and importing more than 500g of cannabis.

    In his late teens, Mr Tan was caught for possession of the drug and fined $1,000.

    However, that did not stop his drug habit.

    High on pills, he was with a group of friends who tried to rob a taxi driver. They were nabbed and he was sentenced to two years' jail and six strokes of the cane.

    He was 19 then. Still, he did not give up his drug habit.

    "I continued smoking cannabis once or twice a week, and moved on to Ice, Ecstasy and ketamine.

    In his mid-20s, he got married, and the couple had three children.

    "My wife knew about my addiction. She became very concerned when a good friend of mine, who was involved in drugs, killed himself," he said. "She would throw my drugs away, but I picked them out of the bin the next day."

    He would spend up to hundreds of dollars a day on drugs. His wife warned that she would leave him if he did not stop, but he "could no longer do without the drugs".

    They divorced. At 39, Mr Tan was arrested for possession and consumption of drugs including Ice, ketamine and cannabis. He was sentenced to 41/2 years' jail.

    "After I lost so much, I realised that I was all alone. If I didn't change now, when would I?"

    He attended chapel service while in prison, and was placed in halfway house Teen Challenge for the last six months of his sentence in 2013.

    After serving his sentence, he cut ties with his old friends.

    He now works at Teen Challenge, helping to handle its operations.

    His former wife sends him photos of their children,who are now aged between nine and 15.

    He regrets his drug taking.

    He said: "You must always think of the consequences. You'll lose your loved ones and hurt your body... nothing good will come out of it."

    Seow Bei Yi

Counsellors whom The Sunday Times spoke to said they are seeing more youth seeking help for the use of drugs, in particular cannabis.

Ms Jenny Liew, counsellor at the National Addictions Management Service (Nams), said it dealt with 252 new drug cases last year involving people aged below 30. In 2014, the number was 136.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, an addictions specialist, has seen a 20 per cent increase in visits by those aged below 25, seeking help with marijuana and synthetic marijuana, over the past two to three years. Most are brought to the clinic by their parents or spouses.

Psychiatrist Thomas Lee, who is also a substance abuse counsellor, said that he has seen a 20 per cent jump in patients in their 20s and 30s since 2013. More of them have a history of cannabis abuse.

PATH TO RUIN

It will just ruin your life. I don't want to disappoint my family again.

JACK, a 17-year-old student, who started smoking cannabis at 15 thinking it could help with his attention deficit disorder.


CONCERTED EFFORT

Most youth will not easily accept the fact that the drug is dangerous and will slow down the thinking process. But we need to hear their views and challenge them, if necessary, with the guidance of the teachers.

MS SHAKILA KRESININ, a senior counsellor at Sana, on how schools and parents need to be more proactive in confronting the problem

The Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (Sana) has also been dealing with an average of 13 young people each month since last November. Between January and July last year, the number was just four.

MISINFORMATION

More young people are being influenced into thinking that cannabis is a "safe high", said Dr Winslow, when this is not the case.

"The Internet and its news and articles are prime sources of information for them," he said. "As more countries legalise marijuana, the perception of it being as safe as alcohol and nicotine grows."

In the United States, the sale of recreational marijuana is allowed in four states and the District of Columbia. Eighteen other states allow its sale for medicinal use, although legalisation remains a hot-button issue.

Like Jack, cannabis users tend to be from households of middle or high socio-economic status and do well in school, based on findings released by the Task Force on Youths and Drugs last year. Many have strong parental support, with their parents having no history of drug use.

Ms Liew said "a handful of users" tried cannabis overseas, for instance, when studying there, and continued their habit when they return.

One 23-year-old university student told The Sunday Times that he smoked cannabis up to six times in the last six months while in the Netherlands and Germany. He did not think it was a "big deal".

He said alcohol and cannabis have "many similarities". Besides, he argued, "nicotine also creates addiction. And smoking itself has many harmful effects and is legal".

Jack also did not believe that there was anything wrong with cannabis. "I used to have ADD and I (found out through research) that cannabis helps to make people calm and relaxed," he said.

CANNABIS DANGER

But experts here say cannabis is harmful. "Its use has been linked to impairments in teenage brain development, and cognitive decline with a drop in IQ," said the CNB in a statement earlier last week.

A smaller group may get addicted psychologically and end up using it daily, added Dr Winslow. They could suffer from amotivational syndrome, in which people withdraw from society, and paranoia, he said. Daily or heavy use can also induce schizophrenia-like symptoms with potential long-term damage.

Cannabis is often seen as a "gateway drug" that drug abusers start with before moving on to other substances.

This could lead to worse drug use and so, the perception that it is safe is not helpful, Dr Winslow said.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is a crime for Singaporeans and permanent residents to take banned drugs, even if they do it overseas. They can be subjected to a urine test when they return to detect illegal substances, which can stay in the body for up to months.

Jack, the youngest of four siblings, admitted that it is "not worth it" to continue smoking cannabis here because of Singapore's zero-tolerance policy. "I also don't want to disappoint my family again."

Still, he said he would consider using cannabis if overseas.

PREVENTIVE EDUCATION

The CNB said that preventive education remains its first line of defence. It has produced an anti-drug toolkit for educators and counsellors, and will soon have similar ones for parents and national service commanders.

Still, many counsellors believe schools and parents need to be more proactive in confronting the problem. Ms Shakila Kresinin, a senior counsellor at Sana, said schools should "create awareness of the substance and the dangers".

"Most youth will not easily accept the fact that the drug is dangerous and will slow down the thinking process," she said. "But we need to hear their views and challenge them, if necessary, with the guidance of the teachers."

Said Mr Christopher de Souza, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law: "To decriminalise the recreational consumption of cannabis is a foolish proposal. It entrenches a higher tolerance for drugs in community."

"Singapore must resist such trends even if other countries slip," he said. "The law must act as a pincer by deterring both trafficking and consumption - both the supply and the demand elements of the offence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'More S'pore youth seeking help for cannabis abuse'. Print Edition | Subscribe