The Republic of Singapore is well known locally and internationally for its strict laws on the use and sale of drugs. The possession or consumption of marijuana or cannabis can lead to a maximum 10-year jail term and/or up to $20,000 in fines while those found guilty of trafficking, importing or exporting more than 500 grams of the drug can be sentenced to the death penalty.

Amid the harsh sentences meted out to those who abuse cannabis, scientists at the National Research Foundation (NRF) are working to access the medicinal potential of the chemical compounds found in cannabis – cannabinoids – without negative side effects.

The NRF announced earlier this month that it will work towards developing synthetic medicinal cannabinoids as part of its new Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology Programme. The programme is part of a new $25 million research initiative called the Synthetic Biology Research and Development Programme, which will be conducted over a period of five years.

Developing synthetic medicinal cannabinoids in a laboratory would mean that there will be no need to grow marijuana plants, which are illegal in the country even for research and development purposes.

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Besides raising the bar of Singapore’s research into synthetic biology, the project may help build a bio-based economy in Singapore. The NRF believes that such an economy that is centered on research and innovation in the biological sciences could not only metamorphose health and nutrition in the country and improve local manufacturing processes, it could also have an impact on creating high-quality jobs and play a role in future business revenue streams.

Singapore joins nations like the United States and China which have invested in research and developing synthetic biology programmes, but the fact that such research into cannabinoids is being conducted here in a zero drug tolerance nation like Singapore is a surprise to some.

Journalists at US broadcaster Hawaii Public Radio are one group that expressed surprise that such research is taking place in this part of the world. Radio host Bill Dorman explained to predominantly American listeners through the station’s “Asia Minute” segment, that the thriving pharmaceuticals business here is what may have led to the creation of a programme such as this in Singapore:

“Singapore is home to some of the strictest drug laws in the world. Possession of a little more than a pound of marijuana can get you the death penalty under the country’s “Misuse of Drugs Act” – in force since 1973.
“But Singapore also has a thriving pharmaceutical drugs business—including research and development and a growing focus on biotechnology. And that’s where the interest in medical marijuana comes in – or more specifically, medical cannabis produced in the laboratory.”

Meanwhile, the authorities are firmly set on sustaining Singapore’s image as a zero drug tolerance nation. Law Minister K Shanmugam reaffirmed this stance at the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 where several nations argued for regulated markets – instead of outright criminalisation – for drugs such as cannabis.

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The Minister differed from the views of representatives from nations such as Canada, Colombia, Bolivia, Uruguay, Mexico, Jamaica, and New Zealand and said:

“For us, the choice is clear. We want a drug-free Singapore, not a drug-tolerant Singapore.
“We are located in a difficult environment. We are near several major drug production centres. We believe that drugs will destroy our society. 
“With 200 million people travelling through our borders every year, and given Singaporeans’ purchasing power, a soft approach will mean our country will be washed over with drugs.
“This is why we have adopted a comprehensive, balanced, sustained and tough approach to tackling both drug supply and demand.
“The results speak for themselves. We are relatively drug-free, and the drug situation is under control. There are no drug havens, no no-go zones, no drug production centres, no needle exchange programmes. Our stance on drugs has allowed us to build a safe and secure Singapore for our people.”