S'pore 'disappointed' at UN reclassification of cannabis

Move may fuel wrong perception, especially among the youth, that it is less harmful: MHA

The decision will not impact Singapore's zero-tolerance stance against drugs.
The decision will not impact Singapore's zero-tolerance stance against drugs.PHOTO: REUTERS

The Singapore Government has registered its disappointment at a United Nations commission's reclassification of cannabis as a less dangerous drug, saying this could fuel the wrong perception that it is less harmful than before.

The statement issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) yesterday came after the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the main drug policymaking body of the UN, voted on Wednesday to remove cannabis for medicinal purposes from a category of the world's most dangerous drugs.

The 53 member states of the commission had voted to accept one of six recommendations on cannabis and cannabis-related substances put forward by the World Health Organisation Expert Committee on Drug Dependence. The other five recommendations were rejected.

The recommendation, which required a simple majority to pass, was voted for by 27 member states, with 25 voting against it and one member abstaining.

In expressing its disappointment with the outcome, MHA said: "There is no strong evidence to support the recommendations, including Recommendation 5.1."

The acceptance of the recommendation means that cannabis and cannabis resin would no longer be listed with the most dangerous drugs, such as heroin, in Schedule IV under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, although international control measures for them remain unchanged.

Schedule IV lists the most dangerous substances that are highly addictive, liable to abuse and rarely used in medical practice. The Convention allows countries to impose conditions on such drugs, except for the amounts needed for medical and scientific research.

MHA said the acceptance of Recommendation 5.1 could send a wrong signal that the United Nations commission has softened its stance against cannabis and fuel public misperception, especially among the youth, that cannabis is no longer considered to be as harmful as before despite strong evidence showing otherwise.

The decision will not impact Singapore's zero-tolerance stance against drugs, including against cannabis and cannabis-related substances, added the ministry. It noted that the international drug control conventions allow countries the flexibility to adopt national measures that are stricter than required by the conventions.

Singapore is not a voting member of the commission but has been involved in discussions it held.

Delivering a statement at the 63rd session of the UN commission, Singapore's Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Umej Bhatia, reiterated the Republic's stance on this issue, joining 28 other countries aligned against the recommendations.

These countries - including China, Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Turkey - agreed that acceptance of Recommendation 5.1 should not be viewed as an endorsement of recreational cannabis nor lead to further liberalisation of controls over cannabis.

Mr Bhatia said the voting outcomes had demonstrated clearly that there was no international consensus on the World Health Organisation expert committee's recommendations to the UN commission.

"Clearly, there is a lack of adequate and robust evidence to substantiate these recommendations, particularly on the safety and efficacy of cannabis and its related substances for medical purposes."

In contrast, there is well-founded and incontrovertible research that establishes several short-term and long-term adverse effects associated with cannabis use, including impairments to respiratory and cognitive functions, he told the commission.

The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence consists of an independent group of experts in the field of drugs and medicine.

In its statement, MHA said that contrary to the WHO expert committee's views, there are no compelling justifications that the proposed rescheduling is required to reduce barriers to access cannabis and its related substances for medical and scientific purposes.

The current international drug control system already provides adequate access to such stances for these purposes, MHA added.

It reiterated that Singapore would continue to enforce strict laws against the trafficking, possession, consumption, and import and export of illicit drugs, including cannabis, to protect the health and welfare of its people.

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2020, with the headline 'S'pore 'disappointed' at UN reclassification of cannabis'. Subscribe