Drug use among the young: Treatment critical but challenging, say experts

To better tackle the growing drug problem among young people, doctors and drug counsellors say one critical challenge is to get them to seek treatment before they sink deeper into their drug habit.

They are fearful of going to a doctor here as under the law, doctors are required to inform the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) if they are treating anyone for drug addiction. CNB may act on the information to ensure the person has stayed off drugs, and provide additional intervention if necessary.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, a veteran psychiatrist in treating addictions, said: "No one trusts that their doctor wouldn't report them to the CNB. It's a no-brainer why people don't seek help."

He feels the policy of requiring doctors to inform CNB about their drug patients has to be relooked to tackle this fear of seeking rehabilitation here.

However, lawyer Rajan Supramaniam said the policy was important for CNB to trace drug abusers to their peddlers and perhaps even the drug syndicates.

"The youth abusing drugs are the 'small fry' offenders. Reporting the offence would allow the authorities to take appropriate follow-up action, and maybe get the big syndicates which are on the run," he said.

While he believes doing away with the law could mean people would be more willing to seek help, it could also mean all these cases remain "in the dark".

Experts also point out that there are more rehabilitation options now for those under 21 years old.

The options depend on their risk of re-offending, which is assessed based on factors such as social circles, family background and criminal history, said Miss Yong Kaiqi, a CNB specialist in drug risk assessment. Those considered to be of low risk are placed on the Youth Enhanced Supervision (YES) scheme and undergo urine tests and counselling.

Moderate-risk offenders are sent to the Community Rehabilitation Centre (CRC) - a residential programme under which they can go to work or school in the day but must return in the evenings. High-risk youth offenders are sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) for up to three years. Youth under 21 sent to the YES scheme, CRC or DRC do not have a criminal record, a CNB spokesman said.

Mr Anson Yoo, director of the HCSA Highpoint Halfway House, said that separating youth by rehabilitating them at the CRC, instead of the DRC, where drug offenders of all ages are housed, prevents "contamination" - when older abusers teach younger ones bad habits.

Drug counsellors also noted that some international schools test their students randomly for drug use as a form of deterrence. Some feel this practice could also deter local students from abusing drugs if implemented widely in Singapore schools.

A spokesman for Tanglin Trust School said it tests random hair samples of students aged 11 to 18 from its senior school."The random drug test is only a small part of our education programme on harmful substances. It is a deterrent and gives our students a good reason to say 'no' (to drugs)."

Theresa Tan and Tan Tam Mei

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Treatment critical but challenging, say experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe