Thailand legalising cannabis poses more challenges to S'pore's anti-drug stance: Shanmugam

Minister of Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam noted the difficulties in policing and controlling the use of cannabis. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - The easier access to cannabis in neighbouring countries will pose challenges to keeping Singapore drug-free, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam on Thursday.

Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalise cannabis nationwide on June 9. Mr Shanmugam noted that within a week, the drug was everywhere: in drinks, food, toothpaste and cookies.

"The freer availability of cannabis in Thailand, to which a lot of Singaporeans go and from where a lot of tourists come to Singapore, is going to present more challenges," said Mr Shanmugam on Malaysian news channel Astro Awani.

He noted how the authorities in Thailand had tried to rein in the effects of legalising cannabis but stressed the difficulties in policing and controlling its use.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking during an interview with host Melisa Idris, who also asked how Malaysia's looking into legalising medical marijuana would impact Singapore.

Mr Shanmugam said: "If Malaysia legalises cannabis or other drugs, given the even greater flow of people between Malaysia and Singapore compared to Thailand and Singapore, of course, it will be more challenging from the law enforcement (angle) and trying to keep Singapore drug-free."

He stressed that research shows that the drug is addictive and can cause irreversible brain damage, brain shrinkage, and serious mental and psychiatric illnesses.

Mr Shanmugam cited the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) saying that the East and South-east Asia region is "literally swimming" in methamphetamine, with more than one billion tablets seized in the region last year, and organised crime treating "the region like a playground".

Due to the huge supply of methamphetamine in the region, the drug is becoming cheaper and more easily available, but Singapore's tough laws have kept the country safe.

Asked about international criticism of Singapore's use of the death penalty, Mr Shanmugam pointed to the thousands of lives saved through the strict rules on drugs.

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He cited an Aug 25 Financial Times article that stated that all but three of Latin America's 21 mainland nations are now "main countries of source or transit" for cocaine, according to the UNODC.

The 18 countries face big problems such as kidnappings and crime, said Mr Shanmugam, questioning who is looking at protecting the lives of victims of these crimes.

In defending Singapore's strict approach to drugs, he cited a World Health Organisation (WHO) report from August last year that said 500,000 people die each year due to drug use.

Mr Shanmugam also cited United States' Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, which said 100,000 people in the US died last year due to drug overdose.

He also said 80 babies were born every day with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which can cause the baby to be dependent on drugs at birth, which the CDC reported using data from 2017.

Mr Shanmugam also cited another Financial Times report earlier this year that opioids have shaved one year off the average male life expectancy in the US.

"These are big numbers, but, you know, we focus on a few drug traffickers. But these hundreds of thousands of lives, are we not compassionate about them?" said Mr Shanmugam.

When Ms Idris asked if the Government would reconsider the mandatory death penalty in a similar way that Section 377A was reconsidered because attitudes had "shifted appreciably", Mr Shanmugam said the issues differed slightly.

"It's... a philosophical question when people think when the state should put someone to death - should it or should it not? And it's bound with other philosophical questions which have real-life consequences, like - can you put someone to capital punishment even if you're convinced that a larger number of lives will be saved?" he added.

Mr Shanmugam also noted that despite international outcry against the mandatory death penalty, Singapore's reputation has never been stronger in terms of people wanting to invest and move to Singapore.

He said: "Having looked at the facts, having looked at the data, I will say it is my duty to continue to try and persuade Singaporeans that having the death penalty works as a serious deterrent, and it keeps Singapore safe...

"Most importantly, it saves thousands of lives, and we don't descend into the state of chaos that a lot of other countries have descended into."

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