Paved with good intentions is the road to the gallows

Read the op-ed on The Star

Alcohol, like tobacco, can lead to heavy addiction and serious health consequences. We all know that. But consumption of neither would send anyone to the gallows, nor would it subject them to forms of torture and other inhumane and degrading treatments, such as caning.

Every year, hundreds or thousands of people who have been convicted on drug offences are caned in prison. Many others are executed. In 2019, for example, the death penalty was imposed on 13 people in Singapore, all for drug trafficking. One was found with as little as 16 grams of drugs. The suffering of convicted people is widely seen as a necessary evil in society; however, no data has ever shown that deterrence based on the dread of torture or execution worked when it comes to drug consumption and trafficking.

UN data does show that thirteen per cent of people who use drugs have problematic use. Turn that around: 87 per cent of people who use drugs do not. 87 percent are not a danger to themselves or others and will remain productive members of society as long as they are not caught by police because of their consumption.

Recently, I discussed these matters in an online event with a Singapore-based journalist. I recalled that throughout history, women and men have used psychoactive substances for a range of reasons, and in more modern times have done so regardless of the legal risks.

In the world today, about half of all people in prison are behind bars for a drug offence. Let’s think about it for a minute: if the harsh laws are meant to deter use, they have clearly failed: drugs continue to be produced, smuggled, and consumed. Around the world, drug laws are among the least abided-by, even the harshest of them, which break bodies and drag people through judicial systems. Never in civil history were so many people kept prisoners, and most of this mass incarceration is due to drug laws.

In a range of countries, other policies, centered on health and social issues (rather than criminal law) were developed. These countries boost their harm reduction services with the key objective being to safeguard health and wellbeing.

A person smuggling sixteen grams of heroin in Switzerland, for example, would be sentenced to three years in prison, and would benefit from social support. In Singapore, judges would have no choice, by law, other than imposing the death penalty to that same person.

Repressive policies aimed at those associated with drugs have their origins in the harsh practices of colonial times. These days, they sit oddly alongside the modern and dynamic economies and societies of South East Asia, and should probably be reconsidered.