It was a close family member’s diagnosis with terminal cancer that led Fred*, a polite, middle-aged Singaporean, down the rabbit hole of medical cannabis.
“We were a colorful bunch that wanted to call out our government’s narrow-mindedness and bullshit stance towards medical cannabis,” Fred, who co-founded the country’s first cannabis activism group, told VICE World News. He requested anonymity for his protection.
“Singaporeans are brought up to believe that all drugs are bad and not to look further than that, even if science says otherwise and that there are plants out there that exist and can help people like cancer patients to manage and treat their pain.”
Fred and six other Singaporeans set up what they said was their country’s first website promoting the medical use of marijuana in 2014. They had planned to lobby local politicians to relax the country’s strict drug laws until the authorities stepped in and pressured them to drop their campaign.
Fred, however, hasn’t given up on the cause. He runs an active underground online forum, which VICE World News has verified but will not disclose in this article to protect his anonymity.
His cause got an unexpected boost from the United Nations earlier this month, when it voted to remove cannabis from a global list of dangerous narcotic drugs. But instead of rethinking its strict ban on cannabis – possession of large amounts of the substance is punishable by death – Singapore’s government took offence with the UN.
The strong opposition from Singapore and several other Asian countries highlighted the sharp discord between governments over the safety of marijuana that could hinder what is otherwise a global trend of accepting cannabis use in limited circumstances.
A total of 27 member states, including the U.S., India, Canada and the U.K., voted in favor of decriminalizing medical cannabis, widely known for its medicinal value and therapeutic effects in treating chronic pain. It still remains banned under UN law for non-medical use.
Among those the 25 member states that opposed the move were Russia, China, Pakistan and Indonesia. Singapore slammed the UN decision and expressed its “disappointment” with the outcome.
“This could send a wrong signal that the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has softened its stance against cannabis and fuel public misperception, especially among youths, that cannabis is no longer considered to be as harmful as before, despite strong evidence showing otherwise,” said a statement from Singapore’s home affairs ministry, the local governing body responsible for national security, public safety and border control. Its minister K. Shanmugam added to the resentment, taking it upon himself to criticize the UN in its move to decriminalize medical cannabis, saying that it was a decision driven by “the power of money”.
“Companies see a huge amount of profit and a very invidious idea that cannabis is not harmful is being pushed. But the evidence that it is harmful is quite substantive,” Shanmugam told local reporters on the sidelines of a weekend book-signing event, citing several examples of negative effects legalizing cannabis.
“Increased number of people in prisons, increased homicides, increased crime – all the evidence is there. How can it not be concerning?”
“While we have managed to keep the situation under control in Singapore, there is an international fight as well. We need to put forward our position and persuade neighboring countries that it is in their public interest as well as our own to fight this together,” Shanmugam said.
Multiple authorities however, which included the health and science ministries, granted approval in 2018 for a medical cannabis-based drug to be used in the treatment of a young girl afflicted with refractory epilepsy – the first case of its kind in Singapore.
Her doctor pushed for the recommendation after the young patient failed to respond to multiple therapies and treatment and exhausted all registered medications.
Fred’s group set out with a modest plan: to dispel myths about medical cannabis via a campaign website while raising money to find scientific research for their cause.
But the authorities shut down their website a day after it launched and warned members of the group that their actions were “threatening to public morality”.
“Activism in Singapore requires a lot of willpower and perseverance. The general public doesn’t take too kindly to activists so we knew it was going to be an uphill battle from the start,” Fred said.
“But because of how Singapore’s laws on cannabis and the death penalty are so closely intertwined, the government has been incentivised to maintain the status quo. After all, it’s been the same political party in power since independence, dictating their policies and pushing zero-drug propaganda via its ministries.”
The discussions arising from the UN decision dominated coverage in Singapore state media, which played up the government’s anger and presented the UN vote in a negative light.
But the discussion made its way onto Reddit, prompting uncensored, heated discussion among many Singaporeans who questioned the government’s motives around the UN vote. One skeptical Reddit user said that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government was trying to skirt “the inevitable question of the death penalty”.
“It’s going to be a severe whiplash [for the PAP] to admit that something [which] deserved the death penalty turned out to be not so bad and actually have medical value,” the user said.
Another compared the public attitude towards medical cannabis with other infamous banned substances like chewing gum and pornography.
But to many global observers, Singapore’s tough anti-drug strategy has worked out well. The wealthy Southeast Asian nation has one of the lowest rates of drug abuse in the world and is unlikely to budge from its zero-tolerance policies compared to its neighbors.
In 2018, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize cannabis and expressed ambitions to become a world-renowned medical marijuana tourist destination. Cannabis still remains illegal in Malaysia but public attitudes in the country are changing, with a number of advocacy groups fiercely campaigning for the legalization of cannabis use.
This year, a local university student in Singapore was sentenced to five years in jail and received five strokes of the cane for selling less than 5 grams of weed. Another case saw a 36-year-old man arrested in July for possessing 4.93 grams of weed. And in 2007, a Nigerian citizen named Chijioke Stephen Obioha was arrested and was sentenced to death for possessing 2.6 kg of cannabis. The case prompted a wave of international outcry but Obioha was eventually executed on Nov. 18, 2016.
Fred, whose advocacy group disbanded due to government pressure, said that the authorities remained hostile towards cannabis not because it was dangerous to those who use it but because it undermined their authority to rule.
“By implementing the mandatory death penalty, the PAP has declared that cannabis is evil and extremely dangerous and they wouldn’t hesitate to put to death anyone who would bring the plant to our shores. My beliefs would shake public confidence in the death penalty – and their ability to lead the people of Singapore – to its core.”
Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, founder and CEO of cannabis-focused startup incubator Elevated Estate, said that the industry in Southeast Asia was still “very delicate” and called upon governments to adopt more progressive views about the drug and its powers.
“Until policy makers start viewing cannabis for what it is – a plant that has enormous economic value and various uses – their rules and regulations will continue to reflect the lack of understanding, fear and stigma,” she told VICE World News.
She did not rule out the prospect of legal cannabis start-ups from Singapore in the near future.
“I do see Singapore playing a part in this industry with its technological advancements and doing business in Singapore may come sooner rather than later,” she said.
Fred echoed Kitty’s optimism, expressing hope that someday, his country’s laws would see a radical change with a push from its neighbors.
“Thailand has embraced the reality that cannabis has medical values,” he said. “The Malaysian government can be just as stubborn as ours but changing attitudes might bleed over to Singapore and maybe, just maybe, one day we might accept that cannabis isn’t as bad or dangerous as we thought.”
“But until that day comes, we just have to accept that medical marijuana is considered to be just as dangerous as chewing gum and porn.”