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More than “criminal”: The importance of context and detail in reporting on drugs

I’ve been meaning to write an Altering States newsletter for such a long time, only to put it off for this or that reason. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about this newsletter or about the topic of drugs and drug policy!

I’ve been reading up: I just finished a book on the drug trade that I might be reviewing for Mekong Review. I don’t know if the review will end up in the magazine or not, but either way I’ll find a way to share it via Altering States when it's ready. I’ve also been reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté, also with the intention of reviewing it for this newsletter. I just need to get on with it and stop getting distracted by Chinese web novels, webtoons, k dramas, audio dramas, one-pot rice cooker recipes, Spotify playlists and all the other things that I have on/off fixated on over the past few months. 😅

I’ve also been trying to keep up with the news related to drugs. In Singapore, we have stories, by now familiar, framed in terms of criminality and punishment. In December last year, a Singaporean man who grew cannabis plants at home and imported edibles from the UK was sentenced to five years and four months in prison, with five strokes of the canethe first time someone has been convicted for importing cannabis edibles. He’d pleaded guilty to importing drugs, consuming drugs and possession of a drug utensil (a glass bong), while the fourth charge of growing cannabis in his flat was taken into consideration.

The Central Narcotics Bureau reported this month that the number of people arrested for drug use—I refuse to use their stigmatising terminology of “drug abuser”, will probably write more about this in a future newsletter—in 2023 had increased by 10% from the the previous year. 27% of them were under the age of 30. The number of really young people (under 20 years old) caught for using drugs also rose by 13%. The youngest ones arrested last year were only 14 years old. (This month, CNB also arrested a 14-year-old and two 13-year-old girls who were using crystal meth.)

About 30% of those caught were considered by CNB as “new” drug users, which means they hadn’t been arrested before. This means that about 70% of those nabbed had actually been arrested and put through the system before, only to relapse and return to using drugs later. Among those arrested, methamphetamine, heroin and cannabis were the most common substances.

News reports like these provide data but often lack important context and detail. They prime us to think about drugs as criminal, while ignoring the many human experiences that lie behind these arrests and convictions. Drug use is, in and of itself, presented as offensive and morally deficit, and we aren’t encouraged to ask more questions about what harm, exactly, has been caused, or whether our reactions are proportionate and effective.

Take the guy sent to prison for ordering edibles and owning a bong, for instance: what was the harm caused here? Who did he hurt? He had planned to sell some of the edibles to friends—what harm might their use cause, and who to? Perhaps the argument is that he, and his friends, are hurting themselves—although it’s also not clear to me, from the information we have so far, what effect this amount of cannabis consumption has had, or might have, on their bodies and health—but lots of us do things that aren’t good for ourselves (*ahem* smokers *ahem*). Ultimately, people have agency over their own health and what they want to do with their own bodies. And if they aren’t inflicting harm on others—by which I mean direct and clearly demonstrable harm, not some vague “imagine what could happen if we didn't arrest him and stop him in his tracks” hypothetical scenario—then why are we derailing their lives with imprisonment (and all its associated trauma)? What harm is caused by the punishment we’re meting out?

What about all the other people behind the statistics? They’ve all been demonised by the CNB as “drug abusers”—but what are their stories? How did their drug use begin, and why? How will their arrests now affect their lives? And—this is a very basic question that we never have an answer to in these drug arrest reports—how many of them are actually addicted to the substances they’ve been arrested for? The discriminatory “drug abuser” terminology makes no distinction between casual/recreational use, frequent but managed use, high-risk use or addiction. The state-endorsed narratives we’re usually presented with in Singapore don’t acknowledge the existence of a spectrum of substance use.

Even as data points, the information presented in reports on CNB arrests and seizures is limited in utility, because there’s so much we don’t know. Statistics on the number of arrests or the total weight of drugs seized only tell us about law enforcement activities and not about the actual landscape of drugs, drug use and addiction in Singapore. When CNB says they seized 82.9kg in 2023—more than they laid their hands on the previous year—what does that actually mean in terms of the overall illicit drug market in Singapore? Was 82.9kg all the heroin floating around Singapore in 2023? Probably not… so was it 90%? 70%? 20%? Did the seizures have a significant impact on heroin supply? We can’t tell from this statistic alone. It’s the same when CNB says they “dismantled” 25 drug syndicates—how do they define a “drug syndicate”? How many people need to be involved for it to become a “syndicate”? What does this number mean against the overall number of drug syndicates in town? Is it possible for us to even know? Considering that law enforcement appears to dismantle a steady 20+ drug syndicates every year… does this mean that the same people are coming together to reconstitute or set up new syndicates, or are there just that many syndicates to root out year upon year? These are all questions to which we have no clear answers—at least, not with the publicly available data—yet, without them, the data that we do have isn’t particularly useful in informing us about the scale and scope of drug use and the drug trade in Singapore.

According to the Ministry of Home Affair’s budget, the estimated development expenditure for 2024 is S$11,555,600, and total expenditure will be S$201,950,300. (You can see the full Ministry of Home Affairs’s 2024 expenditure estimates here.) If we take a broader view of state spending that might be related to the War on Drugs, I suspect the figure will be larger still, since we have to take into account that people arrested for drug-related offences also end up in the prison system—which will come under “Offender Management and Rehabilitation Programme” in the budget—and also are part of the work that Yellow Ribbon Singapore does. It’s a tremendous amount of money to tackle an issue we do not have a clear view of because (1) so much of it has been pushed underground by criminalisation and (2) the narratives we tell ourselves do not encourage us to consider drug users as anything more than criminals.