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Introducing ‘Altering States’

An introduction to We, The Citizens' secondary newsletter, focused on drug policy and harm reduction from a Singaporean's perspective.

NOTE: I wrote this issue before the news that Singapore intends to hang yet another man, again for a cannabis-related offence, tomorrow (17 May). This man is a Singaporean in his 30s (we are not naming him because his family has asked for privacy), and unless something happens today, the state will execute him for trafficking 1.5kg of cannabis. An application has been filed asking for his case to be re-opened, on the grounds that fingerprint and DNA evidence was only found on a smaller amount of cannabis.

When it comes to drugs in Singapore, we’re exposed to a hegemonic narrative: drugs kill, they wreck lives, and all Singaporeans should support the PAP government’s zero tolerance fight against the drug scourge. Within this dominant narrative, people who use drugs are only allowed to be one thing: sorry. They either repent and get on the state-approved Yellow Ribbon bandwagon, or they aren’t heard. Possibly because they’re locked up in mandatory drug detention, even if their drug use hasn’t actually developed to the point of harmful addiction.

This hegemonic narrative is firmly entrenched in Singaporean society. Most of us have grown up internalising its ‘logic’. The messages I received as a kid convinced me that all drugs — there was no distinction between cannabis or heroin or crystal meth or cocaine, and no sense of their different effects or risks — were so horrific that we had to kill the people involved in the illicit drug trade so as to protect those whose lives had been devastated by substance use. Yet the drug war lens also teaches us to look at drug users themselves as ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ and ‘criminal’. We are taught to hate them even as we claim to be fighting the drug scourge to save them and their families. And when we adopt the framing of 'war', even the deeply cruel and unjust gets justified.

My view on capital punishment changed drastically after I was confronted with its realities, but I carried these misconceptions and prejudices about drugs into my anti-death penalty work. He was just a poor boy manipulated into being a mule. He wasn’t even a drug user, I’d argued in Yong Vui Kong’s defence back in 2010. It took awhile — longer than I’d like to admit — for me to recognise the stigma against people who use drugs that I was perpetuating with such statements, and for it to dawn on me that no one should be criminalised, detained or incarcerated for non-violent drug offences, regardless of whether they are using the drugs themselves or not.

I’ve talked about Singapore’s death penalty regime for over a decade, but drug policy and harm reduction are relatively new to me. My views on drugs had begun shifting years ago, but I only really started reading up and paying closer attention after we started the Transformative Justice Collective. Since then, I’ve participated in panel discussions, listened to people’s lived experiences and started reading up more earnestly. In April this year, I travelled to Australia to participate in, and learn from, the Harm Reduction International conference, where I got to visit centres providing harm reduction services and learn from people working on the frontline, not just in Australia but also in the US, Scotland, Thailand and New Zealand, among others.

I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to be learning about all this, and to meet people who have generously shared their time and resources. I feel strongly that more Singaporeans should be aware of what’s out there, and not just be trapped by the PAP’s pro-death penalty, pro-drug war propaganda.

That’s why I’m starting this secondary newsletter. In writing this, I recognise that I don’t have lived experience of drug use or treatment, and that those are the voices that should be centred in discussions of drugs, drug policy and harm reduction. I’d like to incorporate the perspectives of people who use drugs in this newsletter as much as possible, but also know that it’s extremely difficult to talk about such experiences in Singapore. (If you’re someone with lived experience and would like to share, please get in touch.)

I’m writing this newsletter not to position myself as an expert on harm reduction or drugs — I’m not! — but to share my journey as a Singaporean learning about new (to Singaporeans, anyway) approaches towards drugs, drug use and human rights. I don't expect everyone to be on board right away or agree with me, but I think these perspectives should be included in the national discourse for your consideration.

Some ideas I have for upcoming issues: an overview of Singapore’s war on drugs logic and the stigma it perpetuates, the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation of controlled drugs, an introduction to the principles of harm reduction… I also hope to share my thoughts as I read up more and more on this subject. If time and resources allow, I’d also like to do some interviews and reporting. (I do a lot of my processing through writing, so this helps me digest what I’m learning too!)

I’ve named this secondary newsletter Altering States — a reference to the altered states that people enter into with drug use, and to signal that we as a society need to alter not just our states of mind when it comes to thinking about drug use, but also to alter the current state of drug policy in our country. It is a call for change, but one that sits within an awareness of how much more we all have to learn about different ways of thinking and being and relating to each other.

Altering States sits under We, The Citizens, which is why everyone subscribed to WTC is subscribed to this secondary newsletter right now. This newsletter will be irregular, so I’ll only send out issues as and when I have a piece ready. If you’re not interested in this subject, you can unsubscribe to Altering States without affecting your subscription to We, The Citizens. Just think of Altering States as a sub-section of We, The Citizens that you can opt out of if you like.

If you have any thoughts or questions that you’d like to discuss as you read these issues, feel free to reply to the email and let’s chat! I’m looking forward to embarking on this learning journey together.