Drug abusers who confess to consumption offences and do not face other criminal charges will be sent for rehabilitation to help them kick the habit, regardless of how many times they are arrested.
Previously, hardcore abusers - those caught for the third time or more - would be given sentences of at least five years in jail and three strokes of the cane under the Long-Term (LT) Imprisonment scheme that was introduced in 1998.
Speaking on the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday that a distinction would be drawn between "pure" abusers who only consume drugs and those who face charges over other offences.
He said pure abusers may include those with minor consumption-related offences like possession of drug-taking utensils or possession of small quantities of drugs.
Mr Shanmugam said these abusers will be channelled to the Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs) if the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) agrees with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) that there is no need to charge them over the minor offences.
This will begin from today, in a move "to benefit as many persons as possible", he added.
"We also want drug abusers to come forward voluntarily for rehabilitation. So, moving forward, drug abusers who voluntarily submit themselves to the CNB will be considered for a shorter detention in DRC, " said Mr Shanmugam, adding that abusers will get two such surrender opportunities in their lifetime.
But abusers who deny their consumption charges or face charges over other offences, such as drug trafficking and violent offences, will be put into another category and will be charged in court, if the AGC agrees.
Mr Shanmugam said the LT regime, along with other efforts, has improved the drug situation, with the number of abusers arrested each year dipping from just under 6,000 in 1996 to slightly above 3,000 in 2017.
But he said the move towards a greater focus on rehabilitation is prompted by research showing that long detention periods affect the abusers' ability to reintegrate into society, with the five-year recidivism rates for LT inmates remaining very high at 60 per cent. Such former abusers are less able to hold down a job after a long period in jail and often become estranged from their families and communities.
Citing the stepped-up support for abusers, Mr Shanmugam said the assessment is that "for pure abusers, we can now afford to shift the balance quite decisively and focus more on rehabilitation".
He said the changes to the Act, which were passed yesterday, are quite significant, pointing out that one out of every two recalcitrant abusers could be channelled to the rehabilitation regime.
Other key features of the new law include an enhanced direct supervision order for first-time abusers with low risk of taking drugs again.
Drug abusers will also be placed under a longer period of supervision of five years, up from two years now, during which they would have to report to the CNB for urine or hair testing. The reason is the recidivism rates of abusers after release from DRCs drop quite sharply after five years, especially for those who can keep a job.
Another new feature is the mandatory minimum one-year jail sentence for first-time abusers who deny their consumption charges or face other criminal offences. This would also apply to those who fail to provide a urine or hair specimen.