SINGAPORE - The uncompromising stance against drugs is the reason why Singapore has stayed relatively drug-free, with arrested drug abusers comprising less than 0.1 per cent of the population.
Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee said this on Monday (March 14) at a meeting of international delegates, at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, Austria.
This year's CND is a prepatory meeting for the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem in April, when members will decide on global drug control policies.
Mr Lee rejected calls for the drug problem to be framed purely as a "public health issue", pointing out that there were also public security concerns.
"If we do not tackle drug abuse firmly, and allow it to take root, there will be serious consequences... the wider community pays a hefty price in terms of crime," he said.
He added that Singapore would persevere in its stance, even though some countries were moving towards a more liberal "harm reduction" approach to drugs.
"The harm reduction approach, with programmes such as needle exchange or opiate substitution, is not relevant in our context," said Mr Lee.
"We also do not support calls for drug decriminalisation or legalisation. This is not applicable to societies that are relatively drug-free," he said.
He also rejected calls for legalisation of cannabis for medical or recreational use.
In making his statements, Mr Lee referenced two recent studies done by Singapore experts that, he said, supported Singapore's "harm prevention approach".
Commissioned by the Ministry of Home Affairs last year, they were done by researchers from the Duke-NUS Medical School and Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
The first study, compared Singapore's approach to "harm reduction" policies in 11 other countries - such as Australia, Canada, and Thailand.
Adjunct Professor Stella Quah from the Duke-NUS Medical School, helmed the study and said harm reduction was focused on reducing the transmission of HIV and other diseases through needle-exchange programmes, and not on reducing the harm of drugs on society.
"(Harm reduction) started as a desperate measure way back in the 1980s; doctors in the United States noted that HIV and Aids infections were spreading most rapidly... particularly (among) those who inject drugs," said Prof Quah, speaking at a media briefing last week.
"In their opinion, it was not possible to convince drug addicts to stop their addiction, they thought it was more practical to give them clean needles instead."
But the approach has had little impact on the stemming the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, she noted.
The approach also does not take into account the fact that an abuser's autonomy is impaired by his addiction and that he would need help to be weaned off drugs.
The second study, a literature review of over 500 academic papers on medical cannabis, found that its medical benefits were not clear.
Dr Jimmy Lee, a consultant at IMH's department of General Psychiatry who chaired the study, said despite claims of the medical effectiveness of cannabis for certain conditions - such as chemotherapy-induced nausea - there were proven alternatives for these conditions.
"There is no reason for for cannabis to be a first-line treatment," said Dr Lee, adding that there was "some medical evidence" in favour of its use, but more robust studies needed to be done. "Any potential benefits has to be weighed against the known negative effects," said Dr Lee.
Abusers risked irreversible damage to brain function and developing psychiatric disorders.
But, he noted that one of the chemicals found in cannabis, cannabidiol - which is neither addictive nor psychoactive - appears to have beneficial effects on anxiety and psychotic symptoms, and was an promising area of research.
The abuse of cannabis, or marijuana, is a growing problem among young drug users here, said the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).
Among first-time drug abusers here, cannabis is the second-most abused drug, after methamphetamine, or Ice, according to latest CNB statistics.