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    Dec 11, 2014

    Drug-abuse fighter lost cousin to overdose

    HE IS one of the most vocal champions in the fight against drug abuse.

    But few know that Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli has a personal stake in seeing that no child becomes a victim of drugs.

    Like many families in the turbulent 70s, the drug scourge hit Mr Masagos' family - his 19-year-old cousin died of a drug overdose.

    Said Mr Masagos in an interview with The New Paper: "I was probably a young teenager then. This guy (my cousin) comes to the house. I mean, he was a very fun guy. The next thing you know, he died at the Padang."

    The 70s saw a generation exposed to the effects of heroin. Drugs were easily available then.

    Mr Masagos, who is co-chairing a new anti-drug task force, said: "In the 70s, almost everybody who got involved in drugs was someone you knew. It was like that... But that's not the society we want."

    The scourge of heroin addiction called for drastic action.

    The authorities' answer: Operation Ferret, an islandwide dragnet in the late 70s which nabbed 5,000 addicts.

    Together with enforcement, tough legislation and a cold-turkey approach to rehabilitation, the situation improved.

    Said Mr Masagos: "The concentration of heroin in our streets has dropped tremendously. In Hong Kong, it's 40 per cent pure. In Singapore, it's only 2 per cent (pure).

    "Yes, they (drug syndicates) know if they're caught with a lot of heroin, they will hang. So because of this, they've reduced it by so much."

    Now, almost 40 years later, with society more affluent and educated, a new anti-drug task force is needed.

    Drug-taking is no longer done only at party venues - they are circulated among friends at school and abused in the privacy of homes.

    Among the agencies involved in the task force are the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Health Promotion Board, National Council Against Drug Abuse, National Addictions Management Service and National Youth Council.

    Youth activists are also in the task force to give insight into youth culture.

    In the coming months, there will be focus-group discussions, surveys and the setting up of a framework to better tackle the situation.

    Said Mr Masagos: "Firstly, we want to understand the problem. We want to know the processes kids are getting into."

    The task force will offer its recommendations by May.

    It will not be an easy job.

    The legalisation of drugs like cannabis in the West seems to have encouraged a shift in attitude among youngsters and generated a buzz on Singapore-based forums.

    Facebook groups like Singapore Cannabis Awareness discuss the issue of the drug.

    One netizen had posted that "70 per cent of US citizens have legal access to cannabis... Wake up Singapore, the world has changed".

    Others cite personal experiences, claiming that cannabis is not a "gateway" drug to more potent stuff like heroin or cocaine.

    But Mr Masagos disagrees.

    Legalising a drug does not make the problem go away, he said.

    "Many countries are going down that road. If you look at these countries (which legalise drugs like cannabis), they've lost control of the situation. We can't go down the same road."

    He cited the reality in prisons here - addicts "graduate from so-called 'soft' drugs like cannabis to methamphetamine to heroin".

    The current drugs of choice for youth here - Ice, cannabis and New Psychoactive Substances - are lethal, despite claims by online peddlers that they are non-addictive.

    Ultimately, the fight against drug abuse should involve everyone.

    If you really want to help your schoolmate, friend or even child who is suffering from drug addiction, do not keep quiet about it, urged Mr Masagos.

    Help by reporting them to the authorities. Mr Masagos said that the first time a person gets caught for drugs, it is not an offence.

    "We need...parents and fellow Singaporeans to be with us in this fight. Because if we don't, it's our youth who will be destroyed and...the next generation."