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Singapore Takes Its Peculiar Anti-Drug Campaigns Very Seriously

Published on March 22, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Singapore, the world's only island city-state, is a gorgeous, clean, lush republic located in Southeast Asia. It also, unfortunately, has some of the harshest drug policies in the world. The Misuse of Drugs Act classifies cannabis as a Class A substance and interprets possession, consumption, manufacturing, import, export, or trafficking to be illegal. Penalties range from caning to life in prison to the death sentence, depending on the amount you're carrying. Fifteen grams of cannabis or cannabis resin, or 30 grams of "cannabis mixture," is classified as "presumed trafficking." Five hundreed grams of cannabis or 100 grams of cannabis resin invokes a mandatory death penalty.

As if having the second highest per-capita execution rate in the world (between 1994 and 1998) isn't enough of a reason for young Singaporeans to stay far, far away from drugs, Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) also runs numerous anti-drug campaigns to further deter their youth. And boy, are they interesting.

Here's a sampling of some of the bureau's campaigns geared towards teenagers:

  • "Weed Can't Be All That Bad, Can It?" — In addition to oddly bolding every instance the letter 'l' is used, this poster warns teenagers that "THC … messes with your mind, causing you to hallucinate and see, hear or feel things around you differently," which can "lead to a whole series of long-term problems for your mind and body."
  • "Cannabis: Deadlier Than You Think?" — This cautionary tale warns young travelers who might be excited to visit an unnamed northern European city with "coffeeshops" that offer cannabis (gee, I wonder which it could be) that "consuming cannabis outside of Singapore even for recreational purposes is a criminal offence and the same penalties apply once they return to the country."
  • "Criminal Fact Sheet: Cannabis" — Do not be fooled by cannabis's "mild" image; according to this fact sheet, cannabis carries long-term health effects such as "[tearing] down the body's resistance to common illnesses such as colds and bronchitis" and also increases the "growth of abnormally structured cells in the body."

The CNB also has a collection of anti-drug wallpapers for your smartphone that evoke that a blast from the mid-'90s past:

Singapore's "Cross out drugs!" anti-drug campaign

Singapore's "Don't do drugs!" anti-drug campaign

Singapore's "Say no to drugs!" anti-drug campaign

Singapore's "Drugs ain't cool!" anti-drug campaign

If you thought misinformed PDFs and amusingly dated gifs were enough to deter young people from the dangers of drugs, you ain't seen nothin' yet. At a recent UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs gathering, much buzz was made about a CNB campaign involving rhymes and illustrations that look like they came out of some sort of morbid children's book. Meet JoAnn the hen, Nash the cat, and Mr. Sun, a "happy bear" who got mixed up with heroin.

Spotted at #CND2016: These are the utterly bizarre materials that Singapore uses to try and stop kids taking drugs.

Posted by Transform on Monday, March 14, 2016

As we've seen with Colorado's failed "Don't Be a Lab Rat" campaign and, more recently, Australia's ill-conceived and unintentionally hilarious "Stoner Sloth" campaign, it's tough to strike a balance of effective messaging that educates kids on the dangers of drug abuse without becoming absurd or fear-mongering. In Colorado's case, it learned its lesson and shifted to a far more reasonable "What's Next?" campaign. Australia, however, doubled down and insisted that its Stoner Sloth ads got a ton of visibility and are therefore successful (despite the global "We're laughing at you, not with you" reaction, as the ad agency in charge of the campaign operates under the notion of "there's no such thing as bad press").

Given the misinformation being dispensed in Singapore's existing campaigns and the country's brutal drug policy, I expect it to follow in Australia's footsteps instead of Colorado's. Earlier this month the Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee confirmed that the city-state focuses on harm prevention vs. harm reduction and reinforced Singapore's zero-tolerance drug policy, disputing the notion that drug abuse can be approached as a public health problem

“I do not think anyone disputes that there is an important public health element to tackling the drug problem. But we do not, and cannot see it purely as a public health or medical issue. In framing the drug problem, our concern is first and foremost about protecting Singaporeans, and keeping Singapore safe and secure."

Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Goh Soon Poh also supported Singapore's current tactics, reiterating, "We feel that for us a zero-tolerance approach is the way to go." 

Singapore's brutal anti-drug policy continues to stand out while many parts of the world are starting to approach cannabis from a new, albeit cautious, perspective. As the dominoes of cannabis prohibition continue to wobble and eventually fall, Singapore will eventually have numerous global examples of effective drug policies that are founded in science and research, opening the doors to a potentially new, more reasonable approach to the city-state's archaic drug laws. Until that day comes, however, be sure to keep drugs far, far away from Singapore if you decide to stop there for an upcoming vacation (and you should, as it's a beautiful, fascinating locale). Even if you disagree with Singapore's laws, you still have to follow them while you're there, and I'm guessing you'd like to get through life without being caned, imprisoned, or worse.

You can, however, continue to legally enjoy Singapore's bizarrely amusing anti-drug campaigns. In fact, I downright encourage it.

Australia's "Stoner Sloth" Anti-Cannabis Campaign Delights Instead of Deters

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Rebecca Kelley
Rebecca Kelley
Rebecca is the Content Director at Leafly, where she oversees Leafly News production and other content projects.
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