Singapore has some of the most severe drug laws in the world. Even possessing a tiny amount of an illegal substance can result in a S$20,000 fine or ten years in jail. A conviction for trafficking can result in the death penalty.
Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act is the primary statute that sets out the different drug classifications, offences, and consequences. Human activity around drugs usually focuses on three activities of consumption, possession, or trafficking.
Punishments vary but include significant fines, prison sentences, and caning for repeat offenders. Corporal punishment is still practised in Singapore, with the death penalty for the most serious offences.
The three primary drug offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act
Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act states that possession of a controlled drug is an offence. Possession can lead to ten years in prison or a S$20,000 fine – this is for first offences. So, what does possession mean? Section 18 of the Act offers some clarity.
Possession is broader than physically having a drug on your person, although that clearly is possession. A person is also said to be in possession of a controlled drug if they have:
- The keys to anything containing a controlled drug.
- The keys to a location or place where a controlled drug is being stored.
- A title document which proves ownership of a controlled drug or evidence of delivery of a controlled drug, such as a receipt or carriage details.
These presumptions mean a court can find someone guilty even though they do not have a controlled drug on or about their person.
Furthermore, the burden of proof is for the accused to demonstrate that any drugs found in their car or house belonged to someone else, which is not an easy task.
Section 21 of the Misuse of Drugs Act deals with vehicles. If drugs are found in a vehicle, then they are presumed to belong to the car’s owner, who will have to prove otherwise if that is not the case.
Ownership of the vehicle is not pivotal as even a car in someone’s possession, like a hire car, can be deemed to belong to that person on a temporary basis if they are in charge of it when controlled drugs are discovered.
Section 8 of the Act states that any controlled drug consumption is an offence. So, what is the definition of consumption?
Consumption means smoking, consuming, or administering. Crucially, the maximum fine is S$10,000 or up to ten years in prison or both. This is the same tariff for possession, which is considered a more serious offence in many countries.
Suspects are tested by providing a hair or urine sample. Section 22 of the Misuse of Drugs Act states that if a controlled substance is found in an accused person’s urine, they are presumed to have consumed it illegally.
Under Section 19, if a person is found in or caught leaving an area where drugs have been used, or there is paraphernalia to suggest drug usage like syringes, utensils, tin foil, or pipes/tubes, then there is a presumption that they have used or consumed illegal drugs.
The onus is on the accused to prove that they didn’t know about the drug, so if their friend put cannabis in the cupcakes to liven up the party, and they didn’t know, this person is going to have to work quite hard to convince the court that they didn’t know it was there.
Failing to provide a sample is itself an offence carrying a prison sentence of at least one year.
Crucially, repeat convictions for consumption or admission to a drug rehabilitation centre is a game-changer, meaning an offender comes within the provisions of Section 33(A) of the Misuse of Drugs Act. This increases the sentence to a minimum of five years with the addition of 3-6 strokes of caning. Caning is carried out behind closed doors and with a doctor in attendance.
Trafficking drugs include selling, transporting, or administering illegal substances. Of all the drug-related offences in Singapore, trafficking is the most serious under the Misuse of Drugs Act. The death penalty is the ultimate sanction.
The scope of drug trafficking offences is broad. It includes ancillary activities and support around the central act of trafficking, so participants and people who are hardly involved can still fall foul of the law.
Punishment for trafficking is severe and includes a prison sentence, caning, and the death penalty for trafficking large amounts of serious drugs.
What is the difference between possession and trafficking?
Traffickers caught in the drug loop or in possession of drugs will often claim possession as this is a much lesser offence.
Section 17 of the Misuse of Drugs Act sets out the presumption of intention. Put simply, if an offender has a certain number or quantity of drugs on their person or in their control, then this will be presumed to be trafficking rather than possession.
The identity of the drugs and the relative amounts are well-known in the public domain.
What are the different classifications of drugs in Singapore under the Misuse of Drugs Act?
Classification of a drug is crucial when it comes to anticipating the likely punishment for an offender.
The Misuse of Drugs Act categorises substances into classes A, B, and C.
Class A includes drugs like ketamine, cannabis, cocaine, morphine, and MDMA, also known as ecstasy. Class B lists codeine, dextropropoxyphene and phencyclidine (PCP) in this category. Class C includes pipradrol, alprazolam and mephentermine, amongst others.
Caning is a form of corporal punishment. There are strict rules which apply to any caning punishment in Singapore.
In Singapore, the cane must be 120 centimetres long and 13 millimetres thick and as elastic as possible. The person carrying out the caning is trained to induce as much pain as possible. Three strikes are all it needs to pierce the skin, and scarring is a certainty.
There is an element of psychological upset caused by the imposition of a caning punishment, mainly because offenders in prison don’t know when they will receive the caning.
Caning is quite common in Singapore. 1,257 people were caned for different offences in 2016 (Figures from January to October).
Feelings of shame and humiliation follow anticipation and anxiety after the caning has taken place, with some offenders publicly displayed.
Addiction and rehabilitation
For confirmed addicts, a prison sentence can be commuted to time in a rehabilitation institution for charges of consumption. These periods range from six months to up to two years.
Repeat offenders may find this is not an option and face a lengthy prison sentence.
For many people unfamiliar with the drug legislation (commonly visitors to Singapore), it can be hard to understand the far-reaching nature of their crime or the consequences.
The Misuse of Drugs Act controls a regime of definition and enforcement amongst the most draconian in the world. Transgressors should always seek expert legal advice.
Frequently asked questions
What are the key factors surrounding punishments for a drug offence in Singapore?
The three main factors determining the penalty given by a court are the drugs involved, whether the accused is a repeat offender, and if they have previously been admitted to a drug rehabilitation centre.
This can increase the sentence length. Any punishment the court imposes can include caning.
What is caning?
In Singapore, caning is a form of corporal punishment whereby strokes are administered to bare flesh with a cane. It is a hangover from the days of British colonial rule. Great Britain abolished caning in 1948, but many former British colonies didn’t.
Caning is a common punishment in many settings in Singapore, not just in the criminal context. For instance, caning is still permitted in schools as a form of correction and discipline.
Does the Misuse of Drugs Act apply outside Singapore?
Singapore citizens can be convicted under Singaporean legislation if they commit any drug offences overseas. This includes consumption which is proven by a positive urine sample. It’s as if they have committed the crime in Singapore.
Random drug tests are performed at Changi Airport and Woodlands Checkpoint to determine whether Singaporean residents (or any other travellers) have taken drugs before entering the country.
There is no defence to taking drugs overseas, even if they are legal in the accused’s country or the originating location of the flight.