Asia Times article questioning Home Affairs Minister's statements on drug abuse 'quite inaccurate': MHA

The Ministry of Home Affairs has backed up Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam's statement, made during a seminar in June 2019, that drug mortality rates in Portugal had increased, after the country decriminalised drugs in 2001.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has backed up Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam's statement, made during a seminar in June 2019, that drug mortality rates in Portugal had increased, after the country decriminalised drugs in 2001.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - There are inaccuracies in an Asia Times article that challenged several Singapore Government statements on the effect and consequences of narcotics, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said on Friday (Aug 2).

In a four-page release, the ministry addressed points made in a July 17 opinion piece by human rights analyst Gen Sander that claimed that Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam was "spreading disinformation" about the social costs and impact of decriminalising or legalising drugs, as well as the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

"Ms Sander's points are quite inaccurate," said the ministry.

Responding to Ms Sander's allegations point by point, the ministry backed up Mr Shanmugam's statement, made earlier this year, that drug mortality rates in Portugal had increased after the country decriminalised drugs in 2001.

In her article, Ms Sander, who is from Harm Reduction International that monitors trends on rights' violations committed in relation to drug control, said it was "impossible to find a source for this claim".

But the ministry pointed out that she was mistaken, saying the figures were taken from a 2011 paper by the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, titled The Effect of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal on Homicide and Drug Mortality Rates.

Ms Sanders also stated that drug-related deaths in Portugal decreased and there was a fall in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections following the move to decriminalisation.

The ministry said proper context should be given for readers to understand the situation there. It said that in countries with a large number of HIV-positive intravenous drug users, such as Portugal, decriminalisation policies are typically supported by harm reduction programmes, which aim to reduce the negative consequences of drug use.

 
 

"Their priority is to minimise costs from HIV and other blood-borne infections, rather than preventing drug abuse because drug abuse is often already pervasive. They hope to mitigate the situation by ensuring that addicts can abuse drugs in a safe environment," said the ministry.

"Such programmes may of course help to reduce HIV rates, but they do little to fundamentally reduce drug abuse in the society," it added.

The ministry said the situation is different in Singapore, where the drug situation is under control and the country relatively drug-free. Last year, 3,439 drug abusers were arrested - less than 0.1 per cent of the population here.

MHA also tackled Ms Sander's questioning of the assertion that "for every US$1 gained in tax revenue from cannabis legalisation, about US$4.50 will be spent mitigating these downstream effects". This was mentioned by the minister during a drug enforcement workplan seminar in May.

Ms Sander claimed that there was a large body of research that "overwhelmingly" showed that drug-law reform is significantly more cost-effective than prohibitionist approaches.

The findings cited by Mr Shanmugam were from a 2018 study by US-based think tank Centennial Institute - Economic and Social Costs of Legalised Marijuana, said the ministry, and was meant to give a sense of the costs associated with commercial marijuana, including those related to traffic deaths, school drop-outs, and the loss of productivity.

In her article, Ms Sander challenged the minister's position that decriminalisation of cannabis was responsible for increased criminal activity and he cited Colorado as an example. The US state voted to legalise the recreational use of cannabis in 2012.

She cited two studies - Exploring the Ecological Association Between Crime and Medical Marijuana Dispensaries and Joint Culpability: The Effects of Medical Marijuana Laws on Crime - published in US and Dutch-based journals respectively which showed that there was no clear relationship between cannabis regulation and crime.

However the ministry said that there "is clear evidence to the contrary", adding that the link has been established in multiple studies which, among other things, showed an uptick in property or violent crimes in Colorado following the change.

A 2018 study by the Strategic Intelligence Unit, a US federal taskforce, titled The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact, Volume 5, noted that since legalisation, traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for cannabis more than doubled from 55 in 2013 to 138 in 2017. Colorado traffic deaths that were cannabis-related also increased from 11.4 per cent in 2013 to 21.3 per cent in 2017, said the study.

The ministry said other research studies based on data from other US states also showed the link between cannabis legalisation and an increase in crime rates as well as an increase in cannabis-related emergency room visits.

In its response, the ministry reiterated Singapore's stand on the death penalty which, when combined with other measures, can be an effective deterrent.

Ms Sander in her article disputed Mr Shanmugam's position that Singapore imposes the death penalty because evidence has shown that it is an effective deterrent.

She said that with major changes to drug policy happening worldwide, Singapore's "draconian approach" would put it in "an increasingly isolated position - one that may ultimately affect its trade and diplomatic relationships".

 
 

She wrote: "Minister Shanmugam, the studies have been done and the evidence is in: Punitive drug laws don't reduce drug use or drug trade, and there (is) no evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect."

The ministry responded by citing Singapore as one of the few countries in the world where the drug menace has been contained.

"This is in spite of a worsening regional and global drug situation and when most countries are seeing a deterioration in their domestic situations," it said, adding that Singapore's strategy includes targeting the demand and supply of drugs and emphasising rehabilitating drug abusers. The death penalty is also an important part of this strategy.

The ministry reiterated that it recognised that there is no consensus on the death penalty, and while such policies might work for some countries, it may not work for others.

"Every country has the sovereign right to decide its own approach to maintain law and order and to tackle its drug situation.

"Singapore respects the right of countries that have abolished capital punishment, and we expect similar respect for our decision to retain it," it said.