Sunday 28 June 2015

Legalise cannabis? No way, says Masagos

Medicinal value not proven, he says at anti-drug event
By Hoe Pei Shan And Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2015

LOBBYISTS around the world may be pushing for the legalisation of cannabis, but it is "wrong and dangerous" to view it as a soft drug, Second Minister for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli warned yesterday.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 20th Anti-Drug Abuse Campaign carnival at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre, Mr Masagos, who is also Minister (Prime Minister's Office) and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, tried to "dispel myths" surrounding marijuana, the other name for cannabis.

These myths are increasingly being perpetuated online by social media and foreign news reports about legalisation of the drug in other parts of the world, most recently in several American states, for its purported medicinal value.

But these medical benefits for pain and epilepsy management "are not conclusive", said Mr Masagos, pointing to how cannabis has not been approved for use by medical authorities worldwide, not even by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Cannabis is addictive and "especially harmful to young people", he added, which is worrying as the number of young drug abusers in Singapore has been on the rise.

There were 1,110 abusers aged under 30 arrested last year, up 34 per cent from 826 in 2010.

"My message to youths is this: Keep saying no to drugs, whatever form they come in. They will ruin your lives and your future," he said.

In order to find ways to better address the growing problem of drug abuse, a Task Force on Youth and Drugs was convened last year.

Chaired by Mr Masagos, it surveyed 700 people aged 12 to 29, of whom 237 were abusers, and came up with several recommendations and measures.

Among them is a new counselling, support and guidance programme for youth abusers that incorporates parental input in the rehabilitation process.

The Ministry of Home Affairs will also form an Anti-drug Abuse Advocacy Network bringing together families, youth leaders and the medical community in an effort to raise awareness of latest drug trends.

An educational anti-drug mobile game produced by Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Interactive and Digital Media was launched yesterday.

Called Nelzon, the game is available in Android and Apple app stores. Players aim to avoid drugs, gangsters who tout them and the temptation to try them by toggling a game character to "jump" or "slide" over these "obstacles".

Final-year polytechnic student Ernest Ong, 19, who was part of the team behind the game, said: "Gaming is popular among young people and so I find it meaningful to teach them about drugs and their harmful effects through this platform."

Schools, polys, unis set to get anti-drug kits
Task force may call for more celebrity envoys to fight the lure of cannabis
By Amir Hussain, The Straits Times, 25 Jun 2015

NEW anti-drug kits targeted at youth are expected to be rolled out at all educational institutions, including polytechnics and universities, as Singapore looks to arrest the lure of cannabis, which is gaining acceptance in some parts of the world.

And more celebrity ambassadors such as Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan, whose own son was convicted on a drug charge, may be roped in to lend their star power to the anti-drug message.

These are among the recommendations likely to be made to the Government by a task force formed last year to tackle the growing problem of youth drug abuse.

Speaking to The Straits Times ahead of the release of its findings tomorrow, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli, who chaired the task force, said the typical profile of young cannabis abusers is different from those who abuse other drugs, such as heroin.

"For the first time, the profile of drug users is atypical of what we've been seeing all this time - dysfunctional families, school dropouts, a network of family members who are also drug addicts," he said.

Young cannabis abusers, he said, are instead likely to be better educated, come from more well-to-do backgrounds, and are likely influenced by a friend to try the drug, which is also known as marijuana.

"So, it's a clustering effect... They're just trying it out and giving it to each other," he added. "We've found a good number of clusters over the last few months, and I think it is alarming."

These youth typically try cannabis thinking it is less harmful and addictive than other drugs. They are also influenced by the trend of cannabis legalisation overseas and online advocates touting its purported health benefits.

Said Mr Masagos: "Literature is going out, confusing our youth to believe that cannabis is not addictive, and glamourising it."

The task force, which he chaired together with Minister of State for Education Sim Ann, conducted surveys involving 700 youth, including drug abusers.

According to Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) statistics, the number of drug abusers below 30 has grown steadily over the years.

A total of 1,093 drug abusers arrested last year were from this age group, more than double the figure a decade ago. And two-thirds of first-time drug abusers arrested last year came from this age group.

Mr Masagos said: "Youth are particularly vulnerable to addiction if they start early. And then the drug becomes a gateway to ice, and even heroin... You just need a bigger and bigger fix."

To tackle emerging trends, the task force is looking at more targeted anti-drug approaches.

He added: "We need to develop toolkits, particularly for parents, so they don't take it for granted that just because I'm a lawyer, I'm a doctor, my children will never fall for drugs."

Universities may be encouraged to hand out advisories at matriculation and before students go on overseas exchange programmes to remind them that they can be convicted of abusing drugs overseas.

Last year, 64 people, up from 47 in 2013 - a 36 per cent increase - were arrested at checkpoints after urine tests showed they had been abusing drugs.

Former drug abusers may also be asked to share their testimonies with students more frequently, said Mr Masagos.

Even as the authorities explore various ways to stem the drug menace, he said the Government will remain resolute in its zero-tolerance stance towards drug abuse.

The shift towards a "harm reduction" approach in some countries, he said, is a consequence of their failure in the war against drugs. Hence, the shift in emphasis towards dealing with secondary problems arising from drug abuse, such as the spread of HIV.

Mr Masagos said: "We all have to decide for ourselves what society we want. So far, we have a zero-tolerance approach to drug abuse and the community at the moment is still behind us... We are doing this to save our nation, to save our children."

Mr Masagos said his own cousin died from a drug overdose in the 70s. "My personal conviction is we should not move away from this approach."

"We've been successful, and we should not mimic other countries, which have other problems and other reasons for not having a zero-tolerance approach."

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