"Not my child! Not possible!" Stanley's parents insisted.
Stanley is from a middle-class family and doing well in school. When his parents received a call from the police about his arrest for drug abuse, they simply could not believe it. It had never crossed their mind that their child could be exposed to drugs, let alone using them.
Stanley later revealed that he was bored and looking for a new experience. His friends had urged him to try cannabis as they had read on the Internet that it had been legalised in some countries and was less harmful and less addictive than tobacco or alcohol. Stanley and his friends also trusted pro-cannabis websites and bloggers who claimed that they could take and drop the drug at will. So, he thought he could "just try it".
The fact is, cannabis is harmful and addictive. Trying it once can be enough to get the abuser hooked. These drugs alter the chemicals in the brain and control the abuser. There is no such thing as a "soft" drug; all drugs are harmful and addictive, and lead to legal consequences in Singapore when abused.
According to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), the number of young abusers and first-time abusers arrested is on the rise. Youth are experimenting with drugs like cannabis, also known as marijuana, pot, grass, joint or ganja, which they mistakenly think of as being safe. The profile of these young and new abusers is changing. Often, they are students who are doing well academically and socially. As a result, they tend to go undetected until they are addicted.
"The only choice is to stay away from drugs," said movie star Jackie Chan, Singapore's first celebrity anti-drug ambassador, who added that younger people "increasingly see drugs as a personal choice" when the reality is that one cannot experiment with drugs and not expect to be addicted.
Chan speaks from his own painful experience as his 32-year-old son Jaycee served six months in prison last year for drug offences. Chan said he was "shocked" and "ashamed" when he first found out.
He said: "I asked myself: 'How is this possible?' In the past, I used to just let him do whatever he wanted, but now I know he is still a boy. Youth nowadays think drugs are fun - (but) it will hurt you. Not just that, it will harm your family as well. "
Like sexuality education, preventive drug education cannot be treated as a taboo topic. If we do not talk to our children about it, they will find out elsewhere, which might lead them astray. Parents and teachers are strong influencers in dissuading young people from experimenting with drugs. As parents, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and our children. Our children need to know that drug abuse is very harmful to our bodies and it is illegal in Singapore, even if the drugs are consumed overseas. Sometimes, parents may not intervene early enough due to denial and it can end in tragedy.
Monitor your child's activities and be alert to any sudden change in his or her circle of friends or behaviour. Look out for warning signs such as:
- Sudden weight lost
- Chronic fatigue, loss of appetite and excessive thirst
- Sudden and extreme mood swings
- Short-term memory loss and runny nose (not due to allergies) and
- Problems with eyes (for example, bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils and imprecise eye movements).
Most importantly, always keep the communication lines open so that your children can turn to you for help.
Chan, who was here in August last year, said: "Right now, Jaycee just holes up in his room, writing songs... He doesn't dare to face the world and the media. But I told him, you need to face them. Everyone makes mistakes - we just need to recover from them."
In Singapore, first-time young abusers below 21 years old receive help in different ways according to their risk profile. Those at low risk go through the Youth Enhanced Supervision pathway where they report daily. Young abusers at moderate risk go to the Community Rehabilitation Centre while those at high risk go to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre.
Various agencies and authorities in Singapore are set up to help young people stop their use of drugs; legal punishment is the last resort. Reaching out to these agencies proactively gives them and young people a much better chance of success.
The CNB emphasises that early intervention is critical in helping youths kick the bad habit and prevent them from the typical vicious circle of stealing money and selling drugs to sustain their drug habit.
If your child is at risk, keep calm, be objective, supportive, patient and understanding as you point out the dangers. Encourage them to avoid the group that introduced them to drugs. Seek professional help such as contacting the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) on 6732-6837 immediately if you detect that your child is experimenting or in trouble.
Jenny Yeo was a principal for 18 years in Kheng Cheng School, Radin Mas Primary School and South View Primary School. She is a lead associate, focusing on partnerships and engagement, in the engagement and research division of the Ministry of Education.