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Drugs can cause harm. The War on Drugs definitely causes harm.

We often point to the harms caused by drugs, but we rarely take stock of the harm that prohibition and punishment cause, and how it can contribute to people’s precarity and vulnerability.

“They’re guardians of a drug-free Singapore.” Four people, dressed in what looks like leather jackets, are grinning awkwardly at the camera. There are government agency crests on their lapels, which look like they were Photoshopped on. They are definitely Photoshopped — and badly, too — on to the bluish-purplish-reddish background that’s likely meant to evoke the aesthetics of Guardians of the Galaxy from the Marvel film franchise. Because, you see, these four civil servants are meant to be superheroes.

I’m describing a piece of sponsored content in The Straits Times, produced and paid for by the Ministry of Home Affairs. It celebrates four officers working in agencies under MHA’s purview, such as the Singapore Prison Service and the Central Narcotics Bureau. They are given superhero-esque aliases: "Captains of Lives", "Drug Buster", "Systemic Hawkeye", "Positivity-Man". The message is a familiar one: drugs are terrible and harmful, we are waging war against illicit substances, and these are our brave warriors fighting the drug scourge.

Many substances and behaviours can cause great damage when they become addictions. This includes things that are legal in Singapore: consuming alcohol, gambling, smoking, taking legal meds, watching porn, even compulsive or uncontrolled spending (you might roll your eyes at this, but credit card debt can sure fuck some people over). As a society, we acknowledge the potential for problems to develop out of these activities, and sometimes come up with sensible methods to mitigate the risks without criminalisation. Some examples: public education campaigns about the health risks related to smoking, or strict regulations around consumption like requiring prescriptions from doctors or licenses for premises to sell alcohol. But when it comes to the subject of illicit drugs, we all lose our shit.

The problem is that the brunt of this collective anger and moral panic and prejudice isn’t borne by drugs. As the doctor Gabor Maté writes, you can’t wage a war on inanimate things. And so our repulsion and rejection lands not on heroin or methamphetamine or cannabis, but on people.

People have always used drugs, and always will. It’s not some random happenstance; for many people, these substances serve a purpose. For some, it’s a coping mechanism for gruelling workloads, stress, emotional pain or trauma. For others, it can relieve physical pain. There are communities for whom the use of psychoactive substances is embedded in their cultural and traditional practices. And for quite a lot of people out there in the world, drug use can and does bring pleasure. (Plus: don't forget that we all take legal drugs for a variety of purposes too!)

Have you ever gone for a night out drinking and dancing with your best friends? That makes you not that different from that college kid who took some MDMA while partying at a music festival on a long weekend. It doesn’t make either of you a bad person, and doesn’t mean that either of you are addicted to the substance you consume recreationally. The difference is that the alcohol you consumed was legal and regulated, so you knew exactly what you were drinking and how strong it was, and if you accidentally got more pissed than intended, you could avail yourself of safe ways to get home, or even go to the hospital without worrying about arrest. In contrast, in an environment like Singapore where drugs are heavily criminalised, that young man probably had to score his drugs from some dodgy, unregulated source, leaving him clueless about the potency of his MDMA (or if it’s even MDMA at all), and therefore more at risk. And in the event of an accidental overdose, he can't even go to the hospital without the medical practitioners calling the cops on him, as they are legally required to do.

I’m not being sensational. This sort of thing happens wherever drugs are criminalised and driven into underground unregulated markets. In 2013, Martha Fernback died in the UK after taking 0.5g of MDMA, not realising that it was 91% pure and therefore a lethal dose.

I know many Singaporeans will probably say, well, young people shouldn't be buying and consuming MDMA illegally anyway. We’ve so stigmatised illicit drugs that it’s instinct to blame the user. But why should our reaction to drugs be so drastically different from our reaction to alcohol or nicotine or tobacco or gambling? Sure, drugs are risky and can have adverse impacts on our health and well-being, but so do all those other things I mentioned. Some of the legal stuff can be just as, if not more, harmful than some of the illegal stuff — alcohol, for example, is both toxic and psychoactive, which is why alcohol poisoning is a thing. We might not like to see people binge-drinking or gambling their life savings away or chain-smoking either, but we’re not throwing them into mandatory detention and hanging bartenders, croupiers and 7-11 counter staff for facilitating their behaviour. These approaches are neither consistent nor rational.

The war on drugs refuses to recognise the reality that people will use drugs no matter what, just like how Americans found ways to get rat-faced on booze even during Prohibition. It pours huge amounts of money and resources into policing and surveillance and detention centres and prisons, when those funds could be redirected to healthcare and other forms of social provisions that would actually keep people safer even if they’re using drugs, or, better yet, address the problems that contribute to the trauma, marginalisation and social alienation lying at the root of many people’s drug use in the first place.

The cost isn’t just financial. It’s also personal and social. It affects the way we see and judge others. Just look at the uproar that ensued after it came out that Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s Olympic gold swimmer boy, had consumed marijuana while abroad. As far as we know, he has not developed harmful or chronic dependance on marijuana or any other drug, it was a decision he made for himself for whatever reason, and no one was harmed by it. And yet for days we wrung our hands and flung criticism and he lost his leave privileges from National Service, likely ruining his swimming career. And he was one of the lucky ones; the drug had been purged from his system by the time he was tested, so his drug test came up negative and he couldn’t be slapped with criminal charges. The law and home affairs minister, usually Singapore’s most enthusiastic drug warrior, even spoke up for him, saying that the national swimmers embroiled in the ‘scandal’ should have our “support and backing”.

For many others, the experience is more like that of Nazeri Lajim and Tangaraju Suppiah, both of whom spent the bulk of their lives shuttling in and out of mandatory drug detention or prison. (They have since been executed by the state.) These periods of imprisonment disrupted their lives and relationships, left them at a serious disadvantage when it came to securing employment upon release, and had devastating impacts on sense of self. Nazeri, for instance, once told his younger sister that he felt like “sampah masarakyat”, which translates to “trash of society”.

This is what going to war against drugs looks like. War prompts external aggression rather than internal reflection; we focus on fighting against the Other, not scrutinising and critiquing our own systems. When we go to war with drugs, we blind ourselves to the societal issues (like poverty, labour exploitation, inequality, discrimination, etc.) that contribute to drug use and trade, and individualise the issue to blame drug mules, dealers and users. ‘Rehabilitation’ is focused on personal failure rather than addressing structural problems. Tell people often enough that their drug use and detention are due to fuck-ups that were solely their fault, and they end up feeling like society’s rejects. When was the last time your life took a turn for the better because you were made to feel like shit?

This was reflected in the Transformative Justice Collective’s report You Don’t See The Sky: Life Behind Bars in Singapore, where respondents told interviewers about their experience of the state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centre:

“DRC wasn't what I expected it to be. It’s prison culture, you’re still on the floor. What I see in other countries, in US, their rehab is so professional… I'm a law-abiding citizen, you know. I tell you, I park properly, everything nicely done, and my problem was drugs ah. So I felt that... and then in DRC they treat you like prisoners, like I did a big crime. That was hurtful lah.”

Such condemnation and shaming doesn't deter or rehabilitate people. (This is not to say that nobody ever stops using after going through the punishment system, but anecdotally, the people who manage to turn things around tend to have their own deeply personal motivations — it’s unsurprising that change is more sustainable when one is a voluntary and committed participant in one’s own journey.)

What shaming does do is alienate drug users from the rest of society, creating conditions where they face more barriers to employment and opportunities, and where they are much more at risk of rejection from their community (what messages do we think slogans like “real Muslims are drug-free” send to people who might be in need of their faith more than ever?) It means it is difficult for people to talk openly about their experiences, or have their choices acknowledged and respected, so it’s harder to work through trauma or feel like they have agency over their own lives. It means that it is difficult for people to reach out for help or treatment even if they want to stop using drugs: they might be afraid to talk to people about their use, or to go to doctors who will report them. Is it really so shocking, then, that amid all this stress and rejection and low self-esteem and sense of having no real options, people retreat to their chosen coping mechanisms for comfort and escape? And when they do use drugs, harsh criminalisation means that the trade is driven underground, where there is no way to quality check or regulate the substances that they’re consuming. It means that buyers, dealers and mules are vulnerable to being poisoned, cheated, exploited or other forms of abuse — it’s not like they can file a report with the authorities.

This is what the war on drugs — in Singapore or anywhere else — does to people. We often point to the harms caused by drugs, and it’s not a matter of controversy that drugs can have very negative health impacts. But we rarely take stock of the harm that prohibition and punishment cause, and how it can contribute to people’s precarity and vulnerability.

It’s about time we start, and ask ourselves what we’re really achieving with this war.