askST: Did Joseph Schooling get off lightly over cannabis use?

Joseph Schooling has confessed to consuming cannabis while he was on short-term disruption from national service in May. PHOTO: SIMONE CASTROVILLARI
Joseph Schooling competing at the SEA Games in Hanoi in May. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Hugo Boss says its support for Joseph Schooling remains "strong" despite the swimmer's cannabis use. PHOTO: HUGO BOSS

SINGAPORE - National swimmer Joseph Schooling confessed to taking cannabis while he was overseas to train and compete in the Hanoi SEA Games in May.

Schooling, 27, was then on short-term disruption from full-time national service. His urine test for controlled drugs returned negative.

The swimmer will be put on a supervised urine test regime for six months by the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

Lawyers who have handled military court cases explain why Mindef is involved, the penalties the swimmer could have faced, and how the law works when someone tests positive for illicit substances at border crossings.

Q: Why is Schooling in trouble when he consumed the drug overseas?

A: Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, any Singapore citizen or permanent resident found to have abused controlled drugs overseas will be treated as if he had abused the drug in Singapore.

The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) conducts enforcement checks at Singapore's checkpoints and has taken action against those found to have consumed drugs overseas.

Consumption of any controlled drugs, including cannabis, heroin and methamphetamine, carries a jail term of between one year and 10 years, and may also include a fine of up to $20,000.

It is also an offence for a person to possess any pipe, syringe, utensil, apparatus or other article intended for the smoking, administration or consumption of a controlled drug.

This offence carries a jail term of up to three years, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.

Q: Why was Schooling's case handed over to the SAF from CNB?

A: Under the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Act, full-time national servicemen (NSF) are subject to military law.

Serious offenders can face a general court martial and less serious offenders may be dealt with by means of summary trials. Penalties include detention, reduction in rank, fines, discharge from service, and reprimand.

Criminal lawyers The Straits Times spoke to said offences that fall under the Act, such as insubordination and misconduct in action, generally will not be referred to the civilian court.

Drug cases will result in a court martial. Depending on the nature of the case, the matter may be referred to CNB.

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Q: What is the range of penalties? Did Schooling get off easy?

A: Under the SAF Act, every person subject to military law who consumes controlled drugs can be jailed in a military prison for up to five years.

Schooling's urine test for illicit substances came back negative, which means the only evidence against him is his confession.

Mindef said in its statement that those who are suspected of or have confessed to abusing drugs will be placed on an SAF-supervised urine test regime as part of the treatment and rehabilitation process.

"All SAF personnel who test positive during this regime will be charged and sentenced accordingly," it added.

Lawyer Laurence Goh, the sole proprietor of Laurence Goh Eng Yau & Co, said: "The way they (SAF) dealt with Schooling has nothing to do with favouritism.

"It's exactly the way they deal with everyone else."

Veteran criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said a confession without further evidence is unlikely to lead to a conviction.

"Because of the inherent difficulties in this case to actually charge him, either in a court martial or in the (State) Court, they've put him on this screening regime, which is not unusual for military or civilian cases.

"A lot of civilians who are caught consuming drugs for the first time are normally not thrown in jail."

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam reiterated on Thursday (Sept 1) that while Singapore is tough on drug traffickers, since 2019 the approach for drug abusers has been to rehabilitate them.

“People might have taken drugs, years ago, or months ago. We don’t send people to DRC (drug rehabilitation centre), or even give warnings, in the absence of current drug-taking/positive test.”

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Q: What would have happened if a serviceman's urine test is positive?

A: The court martial, which is a judicial court for trying members of the SAF, handles military cases involving serious offences.

Mr Singh said: "If (Schooling's urine test) had been positive, then I'm very sure there would have been no compromises, no leniency, and he would have been meted out the standard nine months' sentence which the court martial imposes on all first-time drug abusers."

For civilians, first-time abusers who are unlikely to take drugs again can be given an enhanced direct supervision order.

This is a non-custodial supervision order with compulsory counselling, instead of going through a drug rehabilitation centre regime.

They will be placed under supervision for five years during which they would have to report to CNB for urine or hair testing.

Q: Will Schooling have a criminal record? What is the urine test regime like?

A: Mr Rajan Supramaniam from Regent Law said Schooling is unlikely to have a criminal record as his urine test was negative.

Under the civilian criminal justice system, in cases where the urine test comes back positive, a person found guilty of drug consumption may end up with a registerable offence.

Mr Singh added that the military urine testing regime could entail surprise checks for the NSF at any time of the day.

Q: What is the military justice system like?

A: The military court has its own jurisdiction with military prosecutors. Accused persons can hire their own defence lawyers or get an officer, who may not be a trained lawyer, to represent them in court.

Mr Singh told ST that officers who may be assigned to defend an accused person go through legal training, which he has helped to run.

Like the criminal justice system for civilians, defence counsels will argue mitigating factors including the circumstances of the offence and whether the accused shows genuine remorse.

The lawyers said that if convicted, a confession would be a significant mitigating factor because it shows genuine remorse and a good chance of reform through rehabilitative efforts.

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