Big companies turn a blind eye to the harmful effects of cannabis, says Minister for Manpower

Major companies are eager to get a slice of the multi-billion dollar global cannabis industry to market the drug as a lifestyle product with medical properties, said Second Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo on Thursday (7 November) at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs.

Mrs Teo cautioned that there was no scientific evidence to support the claim that unprocessed or raw cannabis is a ‘miracle drug’ and that companies ‘turn a blind eye’ to the harmful effects of the drug.

Speaking to around 200 delegates from 18 countries at the forum held in Marina Bay Sands, Mrs Teo said that the marijuana industry is projected to hit S$102 billion (US$75 billion) in sales by 2030 amid the global push for the drug to be legalised, assisted by claims of its curative properties.

“Big businesses are rushing in,” said Mrs Teo.

She cited examples such as the parent company of Corona Beer, Constellation Brands, investing US$1.8 billion into a Canadian cannabis grower called Canopy Growth Corp and Heineken-owned brewery Lagunitas launching its own cannabis-infused sparkling water.

“Nobody wants to miss this lucrative boat, regardless of the high cost it will impose on individuals and society,” said Mrs Teo.

The minister went on to talk about misperceptions on the so-called medical properties of cannabis.

While acknowledging that research does show that medical cannabis, known as cannabinoids, could be used to manage certain medical conditions like seizures and epilepsy, she cautioned that “there is no scientific evidence” on the safety and efficacy of raw cannabis for medical purposes.

Citing a study published by the Lancet Psychiatric Journal, she said that there was a significant link between the use of cannabis and mental issues like psychosis and schizophrenia. In adolescents, frequent cannabis use can lead to impairment of brain development. .

She also cited an advisory by the United States Surgeon General which cautioned that the use of cannabis is associated with changes in the brain – specifically in areas involved in memory, attention, decision-making, and motivation.

“In short, cannabis impairs learning in adolescents,” said Mrs Teo. “Its use is linked to a decline in IQ (intelligence quotient) and an increased risk of early onset of psychotic disorders.”

In terms of the social effects of legalising cannabis, Mrs Teo referred to the example of Colorado. She pointed out that incidents of organised crime linked to cannabis use increased after the drug was legalised, from 31 in 2012 to 119 in 2017.

However, Singapore isn’t totally writing of cannabis as a whole. In terms of medical cannabis, Mrs Teo explained that it could be allowed for sale in the country after thorough study. She said, “For such potential pharmaceutical products, we can allow them to be sold by prescription, after experts have assessed their safety, quality and efficacy based on scientific evidence from clinical studies and data on the manufacturing process, as we do for other medicines.”

In January 2018, the S$25-million Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology Programme was introduced as part of a research initiative by the National Research Foundation (NRF) to identify the cannabinoid genes for sustainable production of medical cannabinoids without needing to grow the plant.

Mrs Teo’s remarks are similar to those made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in February when he claimed that pharmaceutical companies are hiding their intentions behind a smokescreen when it comes to cannabis. Mr Shanmugam described the trend of accepting cannabis for medical use as being driven by the “power of money and propaganda”.

Mr Shanmugam said this just before a joint statement by the Home Affairs and Health ministries which set out the government’s position the use of pharmaceutical products containing cannabinoids.

The ministries clearly differentiated between pharmaceutical products with potential therapeutic uses, and products containing unprocessed or raw cannabis which they affirm have addictive and harmful properties.

Speaking on a programme called Insight, in an episode on the implications of Thailand’s legalisation of what some term medical cannabis, Mr Shanmugam voiced his thoughts that pharmaceutical companies are pushing a different line for financial gain.

He said, “The research, in our view, is quite clear. The Institute of Mental Health (IMH) did a review of 500 articles between 1964 and 2015 on the effects of cannabis. It causes serious brain damage. One in two get addicted.”

“The companies, which are interested in making money out of this – really dealing in destruction and death – have found a new way of arguing it.”

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