Part 1 Staying Sober – The lonely road of recovery and depression

By Mohammed Saleem

Singapore has a well-known ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on drug abuse tailored to ensure that her streets are safe from abusers and traffickers.

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Our Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam reiterated this point at the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly when he said;

“One of the main reasons that our society is one of the safest in the world is that we take a very tough approach on drugs and related crimes. If a drug trafficker traffics in a quantity which can supply 300 drug abusers for a week, he could face the death penalty. This is not revenge; this is not vengeance. This is based on the principle of deterrence and clear rule of law”

From the first official operation launched in 1977 codenamed Operation Ferret to cleanse the streets of drug addicts to the latest drug busts, the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy is firmly entrenched in the fabric of law and order in Singapore.

However, the disease of addiction is grossly misunderstood.

The government deals with drug abusers by subjecting them to tougher regimes in prison which eventually cripples their coping abilities after their release. Mere punitive measures do little to rehabilitate a person battling the disease of addiction.

Singapore also faces the paradox of boasting a huge sprawling prison complex that comes complete with state of the art security features and accessibility to a wide pool of counsellors and aftercare workers but a dismal recidivism rate for substance abuse. If our rehabilitation programmes are successful, why do drug offenders re-offend and end up in prison again?

If we remove our rose-tinted glasses and assess the drug situation in Singapore, we will realize that many victims of the disease of addiction remain vulnerable even after a lengthy release from prison and some succumb to their addiction with disastrous consequences.

Mike (not his real name) was released from Changi Prison in 2017. Battling with heroin addiction since he was 18, he was incarcerated a few times and was eventually subjected to Long-Term detention for 5 years.  During his entire stay in prison, his wife, children and mother visited him regularly and gave him hope for a better future upon his release.

Upon his release Mike tried searching for gainful employment to no avail. However, he stayed sober and during this period of time, he reconciled with his wife who was his childhood sweetheart with whom he has 2 children; a 15-year old daughter and a 13-year old son.

His wife of more than 20 years stood by him in his daily battles and although he was unemployed, the family was the embodiment of happiness. She ensured that he never felt unaccepted and as a devoted wife, she took to spending all her weekends with the man she was helping on the road to recovery and freedom from addiction.

Tragedy struck barely 6 months after his release.

 As Mike could not get a job, he was often alone at home while his wife worked during the weekdays. Both his teenage children attended neighborhood schools. His mother, a school teacher, was also busy during the weekdays.

The current system that supervises recovering addicts on the road to recovery is geared in such a way that addicts belonging to certain divisions (GRCs) according to the URA will report to a designated police station for their twice weekly urine supervision for a period of 2 years. Unfortunately, this enables recovering addicts who belong to the same neighborhood to come into contact with their old friends and peers during the urine supervision as they report to the same police stations. Not all are clean and sober. Some continue to abuse drugs while under supervision. Recovering addicts get tempted to smoke the drug again ironically from the same police stations where they report for supervision.

 Currently, the drug of choice has also evolved from heroin and Ice to New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) – drugs artificially manufactured to mimic the effects of cannabis and other forms of drugs. The use of this drug is rampant in Singapore especially amongst recovering heroin addicts due to the fact that the current strain is undetected in urine testing.

Mike relapsed after 6 months. However, this time it was not on heroin but the new drug of choice called ‘Mushroom’. This drug is a form of New Psychoactive Substance (NPS) that the CNB is currently unable to detect in urine testing. He was introduced to ‘Mushroom’ during one of his routine urine testing in the police station.

He spiraled into the vicious cycle of addiction with a drug that was technically legal. This drug is currently marketed by drug peddlers in the form of tobacco laced with acetone and some other chemicals.

His life fell apart. He started pestering his wife for money. She complied out of her love for him and in the forlorn hope that he will stop abusing the drug.

It was not to be.

Mike fell deeper into addiction. I intervened as a close friend by engaging the help of IMH. However, after a 3 week stay there, Mike was turned away by IMH on the grounds that he could not be admitted into the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) in the Institute of Mental Health based on a technicality that his urine testing turned up negative for drug abuse.

Despite my personal intervention in trying to explain to the clinic staff about the new drug, they refused to accommodate him on a case by case basis. Mike returned home to another cycle of addiction. He began to hallucinate and started exhibiting erratic behaviour. In the course of his addiction, even his closest friends shied away from him. His wife and family became desperate and his mum lodged a complaint against him for violent behavior. His condition deteriorated.

Mike started harboring suicidal thoughts which his family could not detect. He had confided in a friend who had brushed it aside as nonsense. Mike was also beaten up by his own group of friends during this period of time as his behavior became too erratic.

On June 08, 2018, Mike committed suicide by jumping down the 25th storey of a HDB block in the same neighbourhood he had resided in for more than 30 years. He left behind a devoted wife, 2 teenage children, an elder sister and an aging mum.

His untimely death gives rise to a plethora of questions about the system that governs and manages recovering addicts in Singapore.

  • Why was he turned away from NAMS? I had personally intervened and spoke to the clinic staff to explain his condition and the use of NPS that could not be detected in any urine testing. However, they were adamant in following protocol and could not assess him on a case by case basis even though he was clearly delusional.
  • IMH refused to accept him for delusional behaviour since the family had declared that he was addicted to drugs and instead referred him to NAMS. As he was referred to and fro between two clinics that refused to accept him, his depression went undetected and his addiction grew worse. Could he have been saved?
  • Today many other ex heroin addicts are hooked onto this new drug menace called ‘mushroom’ which is a form of NPS. Why is the Government and the CNB so lax in coming up with preventive measures as well as making this drug illegal so that it can be detected in urine testing and abusers can be sent for drug rehabilitation?

There are many other ‘faceless Mikes’ going through the same living hell my late friend went through without professional help reaching them. Some are fortunate to escape death as the law catches up with them and they spend the next 10-15 years locked up behind bars. Sadly, many also lose their lives to this menace.

Every year an approximate 11,000 prisoners are released into society here and a huge majority of these prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related offences. Our recidivism rates for drug use throw light onto our politically-accepted mantra of zero tolerance which treats the symptoms but not the etiology of addiction.

There should be public engagement and discourses for families grappling with the ‘Mikes’ in their midst and it is about time that our authorities accord substance abuse its medical recognition and not just provide a 7-day ‘cold turkey’ treatment for drug offenders. The physiological symptoms may disappear but not the psychological trauma of addiction which will linger for a lifetime.

Otherwise, the ‘Mikes’ in our society will continue this lonely sojourn of recovery, relapse and depression without the help which they rightfully deserve.

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