Thomas was only 15 when he first experimented with drugs.
In 2008, he was incarcerated for drug trafficking at the age of 20.
He attributes peer pressure as the main reason for his addiction.
“When I was younger, I was part of a secret society, and my circle of friends was taking drugs. Turning drugs down meant that I was not part of the group, and over time, taking drugs became a part of our shared identity,” shared Thomas.
When it comes to drug addiction, the phrase “It won’t happen to me”, is a common mindset that first-time drug users have, shared lawyer Firdaus Daud.
Firdaus, who’s also a spokesperson for the National Council Against Drug Abuse (NCADA), has worked with many youth at risk in his years as a volunteer.
“Almost every young drug abuser has the misconception that they will be one of the few lucky ones who can try drugs and not fall into the harms of drug addiction,” shared Firdaus.
“A majority of new drug abusers are young and may not have understood how truly damaging and harmful drug abuse can be to them and to the people around them,” he added, citing statistics which showed an increase in the number of young drug abusers in Singapore under the age of 35.
Not only that, according to a 2021 report by the Central Narcotics Bureau on drug and inhalant cases in Singapore, teenagers and young adults aged below 30 formed 60 per cent of new abusers.
That was the reality for Thomas.
After spending three years in prison for drug trafficking, Thomas was eventually released.
He credits his newfound faith in Christianity for changing his worldview and for turning his life around.
Not only did he go on to obtain a diploma in Social Work in 2016, he also pursued a degree in the field which he completed in 2019.
Thomas also currently mentors youths at local social enterprise, Architects of Life.
Drugs are more accessible than before
While the 34-year-old feels that his journey bears some similarity to the struggles with drug abuse that young people face today, the accessibility of drugs in today’s world he admits, is markedly different.
“What I have noticed is that drugs are more accessible than before. In the past, or during my time, you had to do it ‘in-person’ — meet a dealer at a physical location, do a transaction face-to-face, and rely entirely on the network of people that you know. And there was a real sense that you can get caught,” said Thomas.
He recalled how selling drugs during his time as a trafficker was a “terrifying experience” for him.
“You are constantly looking over your shoulder, wondering if you would get caught, or when you would get caught,” added Thomas, noting how online platforms these days have changed the way that drugs are distributed, often under a cloak of perceived anonymity.
Media’s misleading portrayal and misinformation on drugs
Both Thomas and Firdaus also agreed that there’s a softening of the perceived harm that substance abuse brings, no thanks in part to entertainment and media influences.
One could argue that shows such as Netflix’s Breaking Bad and Narcos for example, appear to glamourise the drug trade.
Even reality TV programmes such as The Kardashians have highlighted the use of cannabis in pain management.
Much can be said of the fact that action figurines of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned drug-lord, even made it to shelves at Toys ‘R Us in America — albeit for a short time before they were recalled due to backlash.
These examples, along with Western musical influences where drug references abound, make substance abuse seem almost main-stream.
“Celebrities that young people look up to, like Justin Bieber, have become more open about their drug use,” shared Thomas of how drug use has seeped into the consciousness of the younger generation.
He added: ”The way that drug use is depicted in films and glamourised through songs, I think young people are asking, are drugs really bad? When your role model or someone you see as successful takes drugs, can it be that bad? If celebrities say that these things are good, shouldn’t I try to see what it’s like?”
Dangers of drugs in Singapore
Thomas also cited the recent legalisation of cannabis in Thailand as well as in other countries such as Canada and parts of Europe and South America for the shift in attitudes towards drugs.
“In these overseas countries, they produce a lot more materials about things like the medicinal benefits of cannabis. We see that the media comes in to normalise it too,” Thomas opined.
“I think as a young person, the conversation about drugs isn’t as black and white as it used to be. Before, there was a general awareness or acknowledgment that drugs are bad. Now, we have to highlight the dangers of drugs, in the context of the lived realities in Singapore, and how it causes harm.”
Firdaus shared how there is also “increasing polarisation” between those who identify as “pro-drug” and “anti-drug” supporters, making conversations about the topic extremely binary.
“The polarised views, facilitated by echo chambers such as those on social media, may impede meaningful conversations that bridge viewpoints,” said Firdaus, adding that such conversations would bring in wider perspectives and help shape a shared understanding about the lived experiences of drug-users.
In our Q&A with Firdaus, he talked about a so-called “survivorship bias” when it comes to perceptions towards drug consumption.
“For every successful personality that we see apparently consuming drugs with little consequence, there are many addicts and people harmed by drugs that we do not see or that are outside of the spotlight.”
Thomas also noted how many fail to recognise that “consuming drugs doesn’t just harm the individual but the community around them as well”.
And what’s not portrayed in the media, he added, is the overwhelming sense of regret and loss that convicted abusers or traffickers feel.
Speaking from his own experience as well as that of others, he shared: “When you are incarcerated, the biggest thing you lose out on is time, especially for young offenders, for whom this time could be the formative years of starting a career or starting a family.”
In Thomas’ eyes, young people these days perceive drug use as more of a lifestyle choice, believing that “if I want to take drugs, and I’m not harming anyone around me, what is the crime?”
He also described being shocked by the number of youths in prison he’d spoken to who were ignorant of the severe legal ramifications of drug trafficking.
“I knew a guy who got addicted to drugs and, to fund his addiction, then became a drug trafficker himself. I also chanced upon a few youths in prison who had smuggled substances like heroin, without the knowledge or understanding of the severity of these offences.”
According to Firdaus, engaging youth in Singapore to increase drug awareness is one important step that NCADA has taken.
“NCADA’s role is chiefly to harness community support for the drug-free cause and to go upstream and share information and clarify the stark, harmful realities of drug abuse. We do so by driving meaningful conversations and we work with partners, parents, educators, and advocates to safeguard the vision for a drug-free society in Singapore.”
One such effort is its “Finding Juliana” campaign, which aims to engage youth on TikTok through a series of video clips and challenges, to discuss not only the lived reality of drug use, but the everyday struggles of those who are vulnerable.
Drugs have long-lasting negative effects
And to put to bed any thoughts that cannabis is harmless, online medical resources such as WebMD cites how abusing the drug heavily during one’s teenage years can have long-lasting effects.
Imaging tests of the brain showed that some adolescents manifested physical changes in their brains in areas related to alertness, learning, memory, and even lowered the IQ scores in some people.
“My advice to everyone is that it is never worth it. For the ones who are in a dark place and feel that drugs are the only escape or relief they might have, I empathise but I must advise that drugs will only make things worse. It might be hard to believe but there are many people who care and are ready to help. Don’t risk your life,” shared Firdaus.
It is his hope that NCADA’s campaigns would give youth more clarity on the effects of drugs to prevent abuse in the first place.
Agreed Thomas: “A moment of pressure will lead to lifelong bondage. Do seek help immediately to break the vicious cycle of depending on the substance. Speak to a professional like National Addictions Management Service or a social worker or counsellor in the community. It is never too late to seek help.”
This is a sponsored article by NCADA.
Top Image is a still from Finding Juliana, a TikTok series by the National Council Against Drug Abuse