February 27, 2023
SINGAPORE – After studying for his exams while at university, Andy (not his real name) would call his supplier for a 3g bag of cannabis, a psychoactive drug from the cannabis plant.
He would transfer $50 to a bank account, collect his supply from a hiding spot and smoke cannabis-laced cigarettes to mark the end of his exams.
“It was like ordering takeout pizza,” said the former cannabis abuser, who works in the design industry. He started using the drug, also known as weed, ganja and marijuana, when he was 20 years old.
Andy, now 26, said the Covid-19 pandemic made such transactions even more convenient despite the initial movement restrictions.
All he had to do was choose from the many suppliers on private chat groups in messaging apps such as Telegram. While it was pricier, Andy was guaranteed that his supply would be delivered close to his home, sometimes tucked behind water pipes and riser cabinets in public housing estates.
“Buying weed online became easier during the pandemic. If my supply dried up, there was usually someone in my circle of friends who had some weed to share when we got together,” he said.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its World Drug Report 2022 that the previous downward trend of global cannabis seizures was reversed in 2020 during the pandemic.
It stated that the increase in global seizures in 2020 was “in line with reports that cannabis use increased during the coronavirus disease pandemic in many countries”.
UNODC offered several reasons for this trend, including an upsurge in the use of contactless methods to deliver drugs to end-consumers.
There was also an increase in cannabis seizures in Singapore. The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), at the release of its yearly drug report on Feb 15, said cannabis seized in 2022 hit 133.25kg, up from 107.08kg the previous year.
The amount seized in 2022 included about 20.4kg of cannabis found in two places in Braddell Hill – one of the largest hauls of the drug in Singapore in recent years. A father-and-son pair were among those arrested.
Many cannabis users arrested recently have been young people.
In fact, CNB said cannabis abusers below the age of 20 who were arrested had increased threefold from eight in 2021 to 26 in 2022.
It added that of the new abusers arrested in 2022, 70 per cent were below the age of 30.
In October 2022, five teenagers aged 14 to 16 were arrested for suspected trafficking of about 226g of cannabis worth close to $7,000 in two separate cases.
Mr Tan Han Lay, who is with Loving Hand Fellowship and counsels drug users, said cannabis use among the young is increasingly prevalent.
“I help first- and second-timers who were caught abusing drugs. These are young people who have financial means,” said Mr Tan, who added that besides receiving money from their parents, some also held part-time jobs.
The 52-year-old, who is the chairman of the faith-based group, said: “Some of them (young users) view ganja-smoking as harmless as smoking a cigarette.”
The UNODC in its 2021 World Drug Report had a similar observation, saying the perception of lower drug-use risks has been linked to higher rates of drug use.
Psychotherapist Andrew Da Roza, who specialises in addictions at Promises Healthcare, said cannabis users are getting younger and better educated, and more socially and economically successful.
Ms Tham Yuen Han, clinical director at We Care Community Services, said the addiction recovery centre has helped diploma holders, graduates and even post-graduates who were hooked on the drug.
“The proliferation of social media and the legalisation of cannabis in a neighbouring country have also made drugs more accessible to these youngsters,” she said.
In June 2022, Thailand became the first Asian country to legalise the growing of cannabis and its consumption in food and drinks.
Ms Tham said some young people have a false sense of security that they will not get caught.
“They could get access to drugs without leaving the confines of their homes. They just need to go online, place an order, their message disappears and the drugs can get deposited in their mailbox,” she said.
We Care Community Services treated 244 people for drug addiction in 2022, 61 of whom were under the age of 30.
In 2021, its counsellors helped 157 drug users. Around 20 to 25 per cent of these individuals were 29 and below, said its spokesman.
Mr Da Roza’s young clients told him they had used cannabis to relax. He noted that adolescence and young adulthood are stressful times, and developments in the brain make young people vulnerable to acute anxiety, depression and peer, academic and social pressure.
“They find that cannabis provides an immediate, though temporary, solution,” he said.
“Unfortunately, these normal developmental changes also leave them vulnerable to curiosity, experimentation, thrill-seeking and risk-taking. It can also result in oppositional defiance of authority and social and family norms.”
This risk-taking extends to how they get their drugs.
Said Mr Tan: “I was surprised when some inmates said they got their cannabis from playing online games, where they met suppliers in the game’s chat groups. They told me they could afford the habit because they held part-time jobs.”
Andy’s supplier was arrested in 2020, and CNB came knocking at his door. After a urine test which showed traces of cannabis, he was sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre and underwent a year-long rehabilitation programme.
While he has given up the habit, Andy still believes that smoking cannabis is less harmful than abusing drugs such as heroin.
“We (young cannabis abusers) read the same studies that are available on the Internet.
“While some studies point to long-term addiction from cannabis, there are also studies that show its medicinal benefits. This generation has all the access to information on drugs and it would be hard to convince us otherwise,” he said.
But Mr Tan, who was caught for trafficking cannabis at 18, said young abusers disregard the dangers of cannabis use.
“I saw many (cannabis abusers) in the last one to two years,” added Mr Tan, who spent nearly 30 years in prison on drug-related charges.
“But if they’re caught early, it is usually better as there are counselling, rehabilitation programmes and urine testing. Just don’t follow the same drug path I walked on.”