Generational shift in S'pore on cannabis use overseas: Survey

Cannabis products for sale in Bangkok. Younger people here are more accepting of cannabis consumption overseas, a survey found. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Attitudes towards cannabis consumption overseas are markedly different across generations, with younger people more accepting of the practice, according to a survey commissioned by The Sunday Times.

Among Singapore citizens and permanent residents under the age of 45, more believe it should not be an offence to consume cannabis abroad in countries where it is allowed than those who said it should be illegal.

This is one of the findings from a recent ST poll of 1,000 Singaporeans and PRs carried out by consumer research company Milieu Insight.

The survey found that 40 per cent of respondents aged 16 to 24 said such consumption abroad should not be illegal, while 21 per cent said it should. The remaining 39 per cent had no opinion.

For both the 25 to 34 and the 35 to 44 age groups, 37 per cent said it should not be illegal, while 30 per cent said it should.

Among older respondents, more of them said using cannabis overseas should be illegal: 44 per cent of the 45 to 54 and 55 and above age groups held this view. Twenty-seven per cent of the 45 to 54 group think it should not be illegal, while the figure is 24 per cent for those above 55.

This caused the result across all age groups to be almost evenly spread - a third said consumption overseas should remain illegal, a third said it should not, and a final third had no opinion.

The survey respondents were representative of the Singapore adult population.

It was commissioned after top swimmers Joseph Schooling and Amanda Lim made headlines in August for taking cannabis - also known as marijuana or weed - while they were competing in the SEA Games in Hanoi in May.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), Singapore courts can try Singaporeans and PRs who are found through urine tests to have consumed drugs overseas, as if the offence had been committed in Singapore.

The law has been in place since 1998.

The survey found that 42 per cent of those aged between 16 and 24 strongly agreed or agreed that it is acceptable to consume cannabis overseas, in countries where it is legal to do so.

The figure was 40 per cent for those aged 25 to 34, and 31 per cent for those aged 35 to 44.

However, the figure was 22 per cent for the 45 to 54 group, and 14 per cent for those aged 55 and above, elucidating a generational shift in attitudes towards cannabis use abroad.

Younger Singaporeans interviewed disagreed that Singapore law should have overseas reach in this case.

Ms Lorraine Tan, 25, believes that overseas cannabis consumption should not be illegal, especially if the drugs are not trafficked back to Singapore.

"I don't feel that any government has the right to 'own' their citizens' bodies once they're outside the physical boundaries of the state," said Ms Tan, who works in the media industry.

Mr Movin Nyanasengeran, 30, believes that use of cannabis for medicinal purposes should be legalised but regulated, and abusers should not have access to the drug.

"Cigarettes also do harm to the body, so should they not also be banned instead of regulated?" said the PhD student at the National University of Singapore.

However, lawyers and academics said that the extraterritorial reach of Singapore's drug laws was understandable, even necessary, to enforce its zero-tolerance stance effectively.

Remote video URL

Criminal lawyer Ramesh Tiwary said: "Once we have determined that drugs are harmful, then it should be illegal wherever you consume it. Otherwise, the policing is impossible."

For instance, he said anyone who consumes cannabis in Singapore would then be able to take a short drive or ferry ride out of the country and claim he took it while abroad to avoid penalties.

Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) Eugene Tan agreed and said the MDA's extraterritoriality is not an overreach of state authority, as it focuses on citizens and PRs who return to Singapore and subsequently test positive for illicit drugs.

"This unilateral regulation of drug consumers who are citizens and PRs is to promote and protect our anti-drug policy and interests of society. I would argue that in such circumstances, extraterritoriality is a state obligation."

Experts point to media portrayals, the availability of pro-cannabis information online, and peer pressure as key reasons behind more liberal attitudes of young people.

Mr Raymond Tan, who runs drug rehabilitation programmes at halfway house The New Charis Mission, said that among challenges faced in educating youth was the wealth of information online on the purported benefits of cannabis use.

In his experience, peer pressure is a key reason many drug users in Singapore get started on the habit. "A lot of addicts never intended to be one - it always starts with the first puff out of curiosity and fun, but the last time never comes," he said.

Mr Chua Chee Wai, executive director of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, said the popularising of drug use through social media, pop culture and online platforms could result in young people being desensitised to its harms over time.

The recent legalisation of cannabis for recreational use by certain countries such as Thailand has also led to a more liberal view of drugs becoming widely accepted, he said.

Singapore’s National Council Against Drug Abuse recently launched a campaign on video-sharing platform TikTok to engage young people on the harsh realities of drugs.

"We hope this shift towards more interactive mediums and native digital environments will help to encourage youths to engage in meaningful conversations in safe spaces," said a council spokesman.

Mr Glenn Lim, founder and chairman of social enterprise Architects of Life, agreed that one effective way of engaging young people is through in-depth conversations.

Another is giving more former abusers opportunities to share their experiences.

"Because these post-risk individuals have lived through the harsh realities of drug-abuse first-hand, their stories are credible and irrefutable, and immediately strike a chord with the young, who value sincerity and authenticity," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.