Is Minister Shanmugam correct about drugs?

By November 2, 2017Current

TL;DR – Not entirely.

Speaking at the the opening of the second Asia-Pacific Forum Against Drugs, Minister Shanmugam touched on Singapore’s tough stance against drugs. He explained that the death penalty for drug trafficking is part of Singapore’s total anti-drug framework that also includes rehabilitating abusers.

Minister Shanmugam also laid down this challenge:

“So I would ask the death penalty abolitionists to go and study the places where laws have been relaxed, places where drugs have been legalised, find out what has happened and look at the number of deaths that have taken place in society, and then come back and let’s talk.”

Challenge accepted

Let’s look at Portugal.

Portugal sort of decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. The drugs were illegal. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.

Did drug related deaths shoot up?

On the contrary, drug related deaths in Portugal dropped significantly. In 2001, drug-related deaths in Portugal stood at about 12.6 deaths per 1 million. Currently, the drug-related deaths in Portugal stands at about 3 deaths per 1 million.

Not only that, the move to decriminalised resulted in a whole host of benefits. These include a reduction in new HIV diagnoses amongst drug users by 17%, and a general drop of 90% in drug-related HIV infection. Drug use among adolescents (13-15 yrs) and “problematic” users declined. Drug-related criminal justice workloads decreased.

Of course, Portugal didn’t achieve all these positive results by just decriminalising drugs.

That was part of their overall approach. Portugal complemented its policy of decriminalisation by allocating greater resources across the drugs field, expanding and improving prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social reintegration programmes. They also introduced a wider health and social reforms.

Sure. This is just one country. There could be cases where drug-related deaths have increased as a result of decriminalising drugs. But at least there is a model where decriminalising drugs works that we can study and learn from.

Study and adapt systems that work better than ours

So perhaps we should consider other approaches in combatting the drug problem. For instance, we could keep the harsh punishments for those who are trafficking and selling drugs. Those who enrich themselves by hurting others do deserve to be punished.

But we can stop treating drug addiction as a criminal issue, and treat it as a medical issue instead. For those who are found to have been addicted to drugs, mandate that they go for treatment, but don’t slap them with a criminal record. Because the moment you do that, it will be very difficult for them to get out of the drug problem.


Because the moment a drug addict is slapped with a criminal record, he will find it incredibly difficult to get a job. And they will face other forms of rejection by society. Under those conditions, they are very likely to go back to taking drugs to escape from the harshness of reality.

Don’t be ideological. Be innovative instead

The government has been emphasizing the need to be innovative. Perhaps they should do as they preach. Don’t be dogmatic, don’t be ideological. Instead, innovate using scientific and data-driven approaches so that we can come up with better solutions to the drug issue. That, we believe, will not only improve the drug situation in Singapore, but also make us become a safer, more humane society.

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of encouraging meaningful conversations and also to remind all that there are always at least two sides to every story, here’s a link to another point of view that the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal was not a success.


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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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