High society: Why Singapore’s young people are at risk

The number of young people arrested for buying drugs is rising rapidly in Singapore. This is fuelled by online platforms which allow people to anonymously trade in dangerous and illegal substances. The price to be paid can be incredibly high.

By Victoria Wah, edited by Francesca Ross

In the dark corners of the internet, free samples of heroin can be ordered at the click of a button. This easy online drug dealing is making users out of young people from across the social spectrum, warned Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam.

The number of people arrested by Singapore’s authorities for buying drugs and drug-related paraphernalia increased by almost seven-fold from 30 in 2015 to 201 in 2016. Most of these abusers were between the ages of 20 and 39 years old.

Some might assume that drug use is a problem for low-income families but the epidemic reached much further, Shanmugam said. “Online black market sites allow users to buy drugs anonymously,” he explained. “The drugs are couriered in small parcels, which are unmarked, innocuous-looking and difficult to track. The young are especially susceptible.”

The number of drug users under 30 years old has also increased, from 1,061 in 2013 to 1,334 in 2016. The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) found that nearly half of all the arrested drug abusers were less than 30 years old (41%) and close to two-thirds of new abusers were of the same age.

The dark web fuels online drug peddling

Drug shopping sites hidden on the dark web give young people access to opioids and psychedelics, alongside other conventional drugs like marijuana and heroin. For example, one 26-year-old student was recently arrested for using a fake identity to order 136g of cannabis online. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) stamps were also found in his home.

Members of the drugs trade are attracted to the anonymous online environment but the internet’s dark markets do not last long. The Silk Road website started the trend for illicit commerce in 2011 and sold illegal goods such as drugs and weapons. It was shut down after two years and the site’s founder was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

A Silk Road 2.0 site followed but closed in less than a year. Platforms like Whatsapp messaging and social media groups are now filling the gaps these sites left behind.

Singaporeans are scared to undergo treatment at home

Joe (not his real name), is a former drug abuser. He said that pushers took advantage of people like him that shared their personal experiences online while trying to quit their habits. The dealers contact people struggling with withdrawal symptoms and offer to send them drugs. This makes it very difficult to quit.

An increasing number of Singaporean addicts are seeking overseas therapeutic rehabilitation to kick their habits. The Thai rehabilitation centre, The Cabin, has seen their number of Singapore-based clients more than double from 2010 to 2014.

This is because of the fear of legal repercussions in Singapore said Tony Tan, a Singaporean therapist at the facility. One family sent their son to see him in Thailand as they, “didn’t want to risk sending him to a treatment centre in Singapore…They were worried that he would end up getting charged and jailed.”

Singaporean law makes it compulsory for doctors to inform the CNB if they are treating any person for drug addiction.

Rehabilitation can deter users from repeat offending

Young first or second time users are unlikely to see much trouble, despite the tough rules. Those are unable to afford the costs associated with overseas therapeutic centres can seek community and drug rehabilitation. These facilities seek to deter them from repeating their drug use through a variety of programs.

Repeat drug users are often imprisoned, although this is increasingly being seen as a poor response to the problem. Andy Ho, a writer with the Straits Times proposed that Singapore courts adopt a therapeutic approach like in the United States (US).

American courts often mandate a year-long programme of intensive treatment instead of a jail sentence for drug possession. Authorities also work with the drug user to tackle issues they have such as alimony and child support. This is successful but resource-intensive.

Education is an important part of prevention

In Singapore, it seems that prevention is still better than cure. Young people are encouraged to take part in drug preventative education, such as the Anti-Drug Advocate (ADA) Programme. This is a series of visits to halfway houses and drug rehabilitation centres that showcase the damage drug use can cause. These programmes, together with a social media push, spread the message that Singaporean society will not tolerate drug abuse in its next generation.

The path to drug addiction is always a dangerous road. In Singapore, it can take young people to jail, or in the worst cases, a death sentence. Access to drugs is getting easier; access to education on just what is at stake must follow.