Drug Laws in Singapore: The Strictest on the Planet

Funeral for convicted heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van
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As far as harsh drug laws are concerned, Singapore has some of the toughest on the books.

The country's strict Misuse of Drugs Act punishes possession of even miniscule amounts of illegal drugs and prescribes execution if you're found guilty of carrying large amounts of particular types of drugs.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the burden of proof lies on the defendant, not on the government. If you're caught with large amounts of drugs, you are simply presumed by law to be trafficking. It goes even further—if you own a house or a car in which illegal drugs have been found, you are presumed under the law to have possession of the drug, unless you can prove otherwise.

The law is consistent with Singapore's authoritarian law enforcement culture—harsh laws, mercilessly applied, are thought to work best at deterring social evils like drug use.

Penalties for Drug Possession

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the prescribed penalties for possession of small amounts range from fines of up to $20,000 to a maximum of ten years in prison.

As per Section 17 of the Act, you are automatically presumed to be trafficking in drugs if you are caught with the following amounts:

Heroin - 2 grams or more

Cocaine - 3 grams or more

Morphine - 3 grams or more

MDMA (ecstasy) - 10 grams or more

Hashish - 10 grams or more

Cannabis - 15 grams or more

Opium - 100 grams or more

Methamphetamine - 25 grams or more

As per Schedule 2 of the Act, the death penalty may be prescribed if you are convicted of possessing any of the following:

Heroin - 15 grams or more

Cocaine - 30 grams or more

Morphine - 30 grams or more

Cannabis - 500 grams or more

Hashish - 200 grams or more

Methamphetamine - 250 grams or more

Opium - 1.200 grams or more

As of January 2013, changes to the law give judges a little more wiggle room: Instead of being required to hand down death sentences for drug smuggling, judges are permitted to impose life sentences instead.

The accused must be able to prove they were only drug couriers; that they suffer from some mental disability; and they must have helped the Central Narcotics Bureau in some substantive way.

Mandatory Drug Testing

In Singapore, you can be dragged into custody without a warrant and be compelled to submit to drug testing by the Singapore authorities. As Singaporean drug counselor and ex-detainee Tony Tan explains: "[Penalties for] the first time you are caught for drug consumption is one year, the second time is three years and the third time is five minimum with three strokes of the cane," says Tan. "Consumption just means that your urine has tested positive."

According to Tan, Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers are stationed at Changi Airport, searching for telltale signs of drug use. "In Singapore, if you are taking drugs overseas once you cross the border into Singapore and test positive you will still be charged even though you didn't consume the drugs in Singapore," says Tan.

What to Do If You Are Arrested

When in Singapore, you are subject to Singaporean laws. If you're an American citizen, the American Embassy in Singapore should be immediately notified upon your arrest. If you're not certain that the Embassy has been notified, ask the arresting authorities to notify the Embassy immediately.

An Embassy officer will brief you about Singapore's legal system and provide you with a list of attorneys. (Singapore does not have a system of free legal assistance, except for capital cases—God forbid it should come to that!) Embassy officials cannot secure your release, as that would contravene Singaporean laws.

The officer will also notify your family or friends of the arrest, and facilitate the transfer of food, money, and clothing from family or friends back home.

Here are a few tips to follow if you want to avoid even the barest possibility of arrest on drug-related charges in Singapore:

  • Do not carry anything onto a plane if you don't know what's in it. Don't carry anything for a friend or an acquaintance. Remember that Singaporean law presumes possession if the luggage checked in under your name is found with any amount of illegal drugs inside.
  • Keep your paperwork in order. You can bring personal medications into Singapore, but certain controlled medications (not just those included in the banned substances list) may need prior permission from the authorities before you can fly in with them.
  • Do not take drugs before your flight into Singapore. Because Singaporean law presumes possession even in the instance of a positive drug test, you might want to completely detox weeks before your flight.

Notable Drug Arrests

  • Johannes van Damme, arrested in 1991, executed in 1994. Van Damme, a Dutch national, was caught while in transit at Changi International Airport. The police found 9.5 pounds of heroin in his suitcase; van Damme said he was only carrying it for a Nigerian friend, and he had no idea what was inside. The alibi didn't take. Authorities executed van Damme on September 23, 1994, despite appeals from the Dutch Foreign Ministry and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. (New York Times)
  • Nguyen Tuong Van, arrested in 2002, executed in 2005. Nguyen was an Australian citizen who was trafficking in heroin to help pay his twin brother's debts. He was caught while in transit between Ho Chi Minh City and Melbourne. The total haul was 396.2g of heroin, about 26 times the minimum necessary for a mandatory death penalty in Singapore. (Wikipedia)
  • Shanmugam "Sam" Murugesu, arrested in 2003, executed in 2005. Murugesu was arrested after a kilo of marijuana was found in his luggage. Despite a clean record and an eight-year term in the Singapore military, Murugesu was convicted and executed. (Guardian.co.uk)
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