A Singapore immigration form warning against drug trafficking. Image: Facebook
A Singapore immigration form warning against drug trafficking. Image: Facebook

While Malaysia’s health minister recently announced the government’s plans to decriminalize drugs, in stark contrast next door, Singapore’s law and home affairs minister, K Shanmugam, continues to make poorly informed and inflammatory claims on drug policy.

In a country that pushes a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and still maintains the mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses, it’s high time this dangerous rejection of evidence be called out.

The costs of drug law reforms

Shanmugam claims the social costs of decriminalization have been underplayed. For example, he asserts that drug mortality rates in Portugal increased 150% between 2001 and 2008, after drugs were decriminalized. It was impossible to find a source for this claim. In reality drug-related deaths in Portugal have actually drastically decreased from 80 per million in 2001 to 4 per million in 2017. This remains much lower than the most recent European average of 22 deaths per million. Another welcome outcome of decriminalization in Portugal has been a dramatic fall in HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections from 1,016 to 18 during that same period.

Shanmugam also warns that decriminalization of cannabis has been responsible for an uptick in criminal activity, citing the US state of Colorado as an example. But evidence shows just the opposite to be true. For example, one federally sponsored study found that there was no relationship between cannabis regulation and crime. Another study published this year came to the same conclusion, “except for in California, where the medical-marijuana law reduced both violent and property crime by 20%.”

Worried that the legalization of drugs is used for private gains, Shanmugam has also claimed that “for every $1 gained in tax revenue from cannabis legalization, about $4.50 will be spent mitigating these downstream effects.” Quite to the contrary, a large body of research now overwhelmingly shows that drug-law reform, including decriminalizing and adopting a health-centered approach to drugs, is significantly more cost-effective than prohibitionist approaches.

Death penalty: an effective deterrent?

Singapore is one of a tiny number of countries classified by Harm Reduction International as “high application” states in the use of capital punishment for drugs. All executions carried out in the country in 2018 were for non-violent drug offenses. Recently, Shanmugan claimed that Singapore imposes the death penalty for drugs because evidence has shown that it is an effective deterrent; “not for any other reason.” Although officials have repeatedly affirmed that Singapore has one of the lowest rates of drug use in the world, the government has consistently failed to provide transparent data.

Contrary to this, there is no evidence that the death penalty has any unique deterrent effect on either the supply of drugs, or the use of drugs. In fact, the opposite is true: The 2018 World Drug Report, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, admits that in spite of punitive approaches to drug control, the drug market is “booming.” The UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia further recently acknowledged that the production and trafficking of methamphetamine in the region has been increasing steadily, and is now reaching “alarming levels.”

With major changes to drug policy currently taking place all around the world, Singapore’s draconian approach to drugs puts it in an increasingly isolated position – one that may ultimately affect its trade and diplomatic relationships.

In 2017, Shanmugam said: “I would ask the death-penalty abolitionists to go and study the places where laws have been relaxed, places where drugs have been legalized, 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.”

Minister Shanmugam, the studies have been done and the evidence is in: Punitive drug laws don’t reduce drug use or drug trade, and there no evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect.

Gen Sander is a human-rights analyst at Harm Reduction International and monitors trends on violations of fundamental rights committed in the name of drug control, with a focus on prisons and the death penalty for drug offenses.

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