Drug for helping heroin addicts kick habit a cause of erratic arrest figures
CALL it the Subutex effect. One of the reasons drug enforcers took three years to realise that their annual arrest figures since 2008 were wrong can be traced to Subutex, a drug initially introduced to help heroin addicts kick their habit. In fact, the Subutex effect accounts for many of the peaks and troughs in Singapore’s drug arrests over the last decade.
In 2002, Subutex was introduced here as a form of treatment to wean heroin abusers off their addiction. Commonly sold as a pill that dissolves under the tongue, its main purpose was to relieve the withdrawal symptoms from quitting heroin. The number of people arrested for drug abuse fell steadily over the next five years, from 3,393 in 2002 to 793 in 2005. But it was not because Subutex had cured heroin addicts. Instead, they had discovered another use for Subutex. By mixing it with other drugs, then injecting it into their body, they used it to achieve the same high they got from heroin. Since Subutex was then legal, its abuse soon became rampant – but abusers were not arrested and so did not make it to the log of arrests by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).
In August 2006, Subutex was reclassified as a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, making it illegal. In the next two years, drug arrest figures started creeping up again. Drug enforcers attributed this to the arrest of people who abused the now-illegal Subutex. At its peak in 2006 and 2007, Subutex was the most abused drug here, with more than 30 per cent of abusers taking it. Meanwhile, in 2008, CNB moved to a new computer system to track drug arrests, programming it to capture all cases. Unknown to enforcers then, large numbers of yearly arrests that were still pending were not reflected in the annual statistics. From 2008 to earlier this year when the mistake was uncovered, statistics wrongly showed that there was a steady drop in drug arrests, when in fact there was an increase. The declining numbers did not raise eyebrows at CNB – because of Subutex. Officers reckoned that the clampdown on Subutex abusers from August 2006 had resulted in many hardcore addicts being jailed. It thus seemed reasonable that arrests would start to fall. “The drop from 2007 to 2008 of about 300 drug abusers arrested did not seem like an anomaly, because a lot of abusers were already in jail,” said Mr Marvin Sim, deputy director of CNB, at a press conference on Thursday.
Now, faced with the correct statistics showing an increase in drug arrests from 2008 to last year, enforcers also have a Subutex-linked theory. Mr Herman Lee, senior research and planning executive at CNB, said that after serving their jail terms, Subutex abusers were turning back to heroin. This was because the Subutex ban had led to a spike in its price, making it more expensive than heroin in 2008. The increased cultivation of opium poppy in the region – heroin is derived from opium – has also made heroin more widely available. Mr Freddy Wee, deputy director of Breakthrough Missions, a halfway house for addicts, said that after Subutex became a controlled drug, its price started to rise, leading addicts back to heroin. In fact, heroin overtook Subutex in 2008 as the most abused drug, and has remained the top drug menace since, with methamphetamine a distant second. These two drugs also topped the list of drugs used by abusers arrested in the first half of this year. About 90 per cent of them took at least heroin or methamphetamine, also known as Ice. In all, CNB seized $7.7 million worth of drugs in the first half of this year, an increase from the $5.9 million worth seized in the same period last year.
All in, 1,745 abusers were arrested in the first six months this year, a rise of 20 per cent or 285 people over the same period last year. About 1,100 of them were repeat offenders. Nearly one-third of this group were Malays, followed by Chinese and Indians, and addicts who were 40 years old and above formed the largest group among them. At Thursday’s press conference, CNB director Ng Boon Gay said the drug situation is expected to get worse in the years ahead. This is because over the next four years, the agency expects some 3,600 repeat drug abusers to be released after completing their long-term jail sentences.
Given the 30 per cent recidivism rate among repeat drug abusers, CNB will be focusing its efforts on keeping them off their habit. “We will tighten supervision of these repeat abusers to make sure they don’t go back to drugs, and if they do we can catch them early,” said Mr Ng. CNB is considering measures like increasing the frequency that these repeat abusers will need to report back to the bureau for checks, and also more surprise urine tests. By intensifying measures against repeat offenders, CNB is also hoping they will not introduce more people to drugs. Mr Ng said younger people have become more lax towards drugs. A survey the bureau did in 2009 showed 13 per cent of young people would accept drugs from a friend in order not to lose that friend. “These attitudes are worrying,” he said.