The Importance of Fostering an Anti-drug Culture
Jul 27, 2015

Singapore will be hosting the 36th meeting of the ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters in August this year. In the same month, the National Council against Drug Abuse will be organising the inaugural Asia-Pacific Forum against Drugs – an event where Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and agencies can trade views and ideas on drug prevention. To engage youths, it has appointed a new anti-drug ambassador, well-known artiste Jackie Chan, whose son, Jaycee was recently jailed half a year for drug offences, to promote anti-drug messages in Singapore. Indeed, Singapore is known for adopting a zero-tolerance approach to drugs – drug-trafficking in Singapore is punishable by death. The effectiveness of capital punishment aside, the resounding statement sent by enforcing draconian rules on drug consumption is, taking drugs is a costly (and deadly) choice in this sunny island.

Changing Profile of Drug Users

According to the Central Narcotics Bureau Workplan Seminar this year, there is a marked increase in drug supply both in this region and internationally. 3, 085 drug abusers, of which two-thirds were below 30 years old and with more coming from institutions of higher learning, were arrested last year. 52 major operations, including 20 island-wide operations, which subdued 21 drug syndicates were carried out last year. As drug abusers become younger, more educated and affluent, and as traditional drugs are increasingly being substituted by synthetic drugs, many countries find themselves fighting a losing battle with drugs. Poppy farming for example, has increased in Myanmar and Laos last year. Desperate, some countries have legalised cannabis to prevent bottlenecks in jails while others are focusing their energies on the rehabilitation of drug addicts instead. Increasingly, countries are arguing that drug addiction should be considered as a medical problem rather than a criminal problem, so that the money used to criminalised drug consumers are invested in health care instead. This shift is a sign that in some regions, the drug problem is so widespread that it has become more pragmatic to treat drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Contrary to the popular belief that many drug addicts are poor people who take narcotics to escape from life’s misery, today, more and more drug addicts do drugs for recreational purposes. The need for excitants, so that one remains constantly stimulated and because it is fashionable to do so are becoming mainstream reasons for city-dwellers to take illicit drugs. The narcotic culture today, especially in wealthy societies, is increasingly shaped by affluent and individualistic youths and young adults who subscribe to drugs as part of their hedonistic lifestyle. The choice of drugs today is also a telling shift as to why more young and rich people take drugs. “Designer drugs” are so named because they are designed to bring about specific effects and the popularity of psychedelic drugs emphasises the experience of getting ‘high,’ of feeling less inhibited and happier. Taking drugs for these ‘frivolous’ reasons are arguably, more morally reprehensible than those who take drugs because they really need a buffer against the brutalities of day-to-day existence.

Romantic Notions of Drugs

While government agencies have stepped up educational campaigns to warn adolescents against taking narcotics, pop culture, especially electronic dance genres tend to glamourize the drug culture, misleading impressionistic teenagers into thinking that trying drugs is fun, a symbol of coming-of-age and/or an act of defiance suggesting independence. Powdered MDMA – a type of Ecstasy, nicknamed “Molly,” has been referred to a number of times in pop songs. Madonna for instance, enquired if her audience “have seen Molly” during the 2012 Ultra Music Festival in Miami. She explained that she was referring to another song and not the drug but should we believe her? In an age when regulating drugs has become an uphill task, celebrities should be cautioned to watch their words and public attitudes towards drugs, so that they do not mislead their adoring fans and unwittingly endorse the drug culture in public events. Movies and television shows which glorify the drug culture should be censored because these can quickly erode public agencies’ efforts to build up an anti-drug culture. Shows portraying drugs positively also form an antithesis to the moral education in schools, making the instructive work of educators more difficult and less effective. More anti-drug ambassadors should be appointed and more anti-drug activists should stand up to challenge the romantic representations of drugs.

An interview conducted with some United Kingdom (UK) parents reveal that many parents actually expect their teens to be interested or experiment with drugs because they saw it as part of puberty. This misconception prevents early detection and timely actions because parents who think this way are less guarded about their teenagers’ exposure to drugs. Since addiction is not a prerequisite to substance abuse, parents ought to be vigilant and nip any signs of substance abuse behaviour in their children as early as possible. Many young people experiment with drugs with no intention of getting hooked and because the ingredients in synthetic drugs change all the time, a young person with a drug problem can escape detection and thus loses the chance to get appropriate help. Behavioural problems arising from substance abuse may also be mistaken for teenage angst or adolescent-phase-rebellion and overlooked, making timely detection tough. The inability to detect a drug problem in a child can lead to a more entrenched drug habit that is more painful to kick and greater resistance when rehabilitation options are finally presented to the addict. Students who are already experimenting with drugs or hanging out with friends who are doing drugs may also become more defensive, rendering the message of abstinence fruitless, and increasing the likelihood of them brushing aside any attempts to inform them of the ill effects of drugs as scare tactics by adults to trick them off drugs. Teenagers are therefore, an especially vulnerable group to look out for in the fight against the infiltration of drugs.

Marck Chawarski, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University who is studying rural drug use in China commented that a newbie to the drug scene is often brought in through friends and peer induction can quickly multiply the number of users in the drug ring. Like a contagious disease, a breakdown in drug enforcement, be it at the macro or micro social institutional level, from legislative authorities to schools and family units, can lead to a drug epidemic. In a 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in the United States of America (USA), around 1.8 million young adults over age 12 admitted that they had used the synthetic drug ‘Salvia’ at one point in their lives. A 2011 survey done by the University of Michigan found that one in nine high school seniors has tried synthetic marijuana before. Given that most, if not all teenagers want to be recognised by their peers, accepted into their cliques and given that their worldviews are still immature and in the process of being moulded, adolescents are especially susceptible to the beguilement of drugs. Rich adolescents with abundant pocket money in particular, make easy and attractive customers for wily drug traffickers.

The Insidious Lure of Synthetic Drugs

Zhang Yongan, a drug policy expert at Shanghai University says that “the era of synthetic drug abuse is arriving secretly.” According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime World Drug Report 2014, at least 450 New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) have been identified. The range of NPS available has made the battle against drugs more pressing because it is now more challenging than ever to control the sale and use of drugs. There are numerous versions of NPS and novel concoctions are being created every month to sidestep the law. Although Singapore is tenacious is its fight against drugs, it is not necessarily more effective in reducing the number of drug users as more well-heeled and well-travelled Singaporeans come into contact with drugs overseas. Merchandise containing synthetic marijuana-like chemicals are openly traded in stores with disarmingly safe labels such as “herbal incense,” “spice” and “bath salts” in some countries. Trusting and naïve consumers may be misled into thinking that legalised sales of such products meant that they are safe for consumption while those who are curious and experimental will find purchase of such dopes convenient and accessible via the Internet. Unsurprisingly, Spice is the next well-received narcotic among high-school seniors in America, after marijuana because many adolescents believe that it is safe, organic and legal. As it is trickier to tell what and how much chemicals have been added to synthetic drugs, the effects produced on users can vary widely, exacerbating the rate and magnitude of risks since different body constitutions react to different chemical components in dissimilar ways, making the outcome of synthetic drug consumption more unpredictable.

In China, the head of the police’s Narcotics Control Bureau, Liu Yuejin revealed last November that there are about 13 million drug addicts in China and 0.5 per cent of the population are methamphetamine (otherwise known as “ice”) users. Easy to buy and prepare, there has been a 261 per cent rise in the seizure of “ice” in Singapore in 2012 compared to 2011. Clearly, given the scale and speed of spread, it is not sufficient for the authorities to deal with the drug scourge alone. Not only does drug use produces side effects for the person taking it, drug users are exposed to ancillary threats such as the spread of contagious diseases, Hepatitis and HIVs among others due to contaminated needles. They are also more likely to exhibit liberal behaviours and more prone to accidents when drugs lower their inhibitions. The increased euphoria from drugs leads to the craving for more and in the long run, leads to extreme lows when one is incrementally destroyed by drugs (severe tooth decay, cold sores, and convulsions et cetera) and ultimately suffers social exclusions or becomes withdrawn due to altered looks or frail health. Relying on drugs to manage life issues undermines the acquisition of life skills, which is necessary for the young adult to cultivate in order to succeed in life. Physical, social and emotional costs aside, rolling out rehabilitation programmes and maintaining halfway houses incur public money, which can be put to better use. At the individual level, having a drug addict in the family fractures familial cohesiveness.


Because the personal, social and economic cost of taking drug is exorbitantly high, it is urgent that we, as a society actively foster an anti-drug culture where people internalise the message that drug-taking is not an acceptable lifestyle and anyone propagating otherwise should be corrected. Schools, the community and parents need to challenge the myth that drug intoxication is temporary, experimental and a passing fad. The mass media must step up to the plate and act responsibly. Artistes with clean images should be more vigorously promoted, replacing those whose conduct are less than exemplary. Such suggestions sound sanitised but more stringent selection of stars is what a socially responsible enterprise should do and mass media, like all other (entertainment) industries, are not exempted from exercising due diligence in ensuring that the ‘products’ they introduce on stage, have the consumers’ interests at heart.

Educators should be taught how to identify and screen students who display risk factors for addiction and mandatory counselling together with the student’s parents should be arranged. Internet commerce should be more closely monitored to ensure that synthetic drugs are not sneaked into normal products and sold in disguise and checks on nightspots should continue with businesses that knowingly allow the use and trade of drugs in their premises fined heavily. Fostering an anti-drug culture requires the support of all levels of society. It cannot be done in silos. Not only do social members need to take a common stand against drugs and do the right thing when they see someone peddling or consuming drugs, countries need to work together to eliminate the manufacture and trafficking of drugs by sharing intelligence and working closely to combat transnational drug trading. Involvement in the trade because one is poor is an excuse – it is not a sound reason. Drugs show up the political, economic, social and emotional gaps that we need to plug and we need responsible governments who are also good problem-solvers as well as activists who are genuinely effective in championing the right causes to truly eradicate the illicit use of drugs and stop this trade, which has scant regard for human lives.

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