With medical marijuana laws on the rise and public support for legalization at an all-time high (pun absolutely intended), there's never a been safer or more socially acceptable time to be a stoner — that is, unless you live in, say, Singapore, home to drug laws that have been described as "the strictest on the planet." Under the country's Misuse of Drugs Act, first-time offenders caught sparking up a single joint face up to a year in jail; repeat violators face up to 10 years, $20,000 in fines and multiple canings (corporal punishment is legal in Singapore). Get caught with a pound or more, and you're looking at a life sentence — if you're lucky. Enter Marijannah, a recently-formed Singaporean stoner-doom outfit featuring members of Wormrot and the Caulfield Cult, who dare to crank out bong-hit-friendly crushers in a no-tolerance country.
"The first thing anyone sees when they come through Singapore is this huge sign in the airport that says 'death to drug traffickers,'" drummer Nicholas Wong warns over Skype, going on to add, "Once you have a certain amount, it's pretty much the noose." Revolver caught up with the musician to get the run-down on the state of Singaporean stoner metal, as well as the risks faced by Marijannah and other bands in the scene.
SINGAPORE HAS A REPUTATION FOR SOME OF THE STRICTEST DRUG LAWS IN THE WORLD. ARE THEY REALLY AS DRACONIAN AS PEOPLE SAY THEY ARE?
NICHOLAS WONG All of us in the band have friends who've done time behind bars because they were caught with a joint in their pocket. And there are random urine tests. I have friends who've done six, eight, nine months behind bars when they were just 18 or 19 years old because they were caught smoking a joint. [Editor's note: In Singapore, possessing over 15 grams of marijuana is considered drug trafficking, and comes with a penalty of $20,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison.]
KEEPING ALL OF THOSE RISKS IN MIND, WHAT'S THE STONER-METAL SCENE LIKE IN SINGAPORE, TO THE EXTENT THAT IT EXISTS?
People who smoke just try and keep it on the down low, really. There are a small handful of stoner bands, but I don't think anyone actually promotes anything they're not allowed to. Nobody glorifies weed, or sings about it. We don't have much freedom of speech here in Singapore, so ever since we were young, we weren't allowed to do or say certain things. So even though we're playing stoner metal, and our name is a little bit suspicious, we're pretty careful that we're not doing, saying or singing anything that could get us into trouble.
DO THE POLICE MONITOR SOCIAL MEDIA?
Yeah. There are bands who've been banned from playing Singapore because what they post. Born of Osiris were banned because a few of them [bassist David DaRocha and drummer Cameron Losch] shared weed-related stuff on social media. [Editor's note: Street Noise SG, the promoter for Born of Osiris' Singapore show on June 15th, officially cited "band label administration and passport related matters on the band's side" as reasons for the cancellation. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore (ICA) does not comment on individual cases for confidentiality reasons, The Strait Times points out.]
HAVE THEY GIVEN YOU ANY TROUBLE ABOUT YOUR BAND NAME?
Not yet. I mean, we haven't been around for very long, so fingers crossed something doesn't happen! Also, I'm not sure if most people in the western world are aware of this, but Marijannah is actually a double entendre. It directly translates to "Come to Paradise" in the Malay language, which is a native language over here.
THE NEW YORK CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT USED TO HAVE A CONTROVERSIAL POLICY CALLED "STOP AND FRISK" THAT BASICALLY GAVE COPS FREE REIGN TO SEARCH ANYONE THEY DEEMED SUSPICIOUS. DOES SINGAPORE HAVE ANYTHING SIMILAR?
Yeah. I've been searched many times — especially as someone with tattoos, just walking around. [Laughs] They'll search your bags randomly, even in train stations. I carry my drum gear and cymbals to practice, and I take the train. I get checked all the time. A tattooed man carrying a huge, weirdly-shaped bag isn't exactly the best image ... [Laughs]
SO THE GOVERNMENT AND THE POLICE CLEARLY DON'T LIKE WEED — BUT WHAT ABOUT EVERYDAY SINGAPOREANS? HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CULTURAL ATTITUDE AS A WHOLE? IF SOMEONE SEES YOU SPARKING UP, WILL THEY CALL THE COPS?
Generally, smoking a joint in public isn't the smartest thing to do here, and I don't think many people do that. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of people from the older generations who don't know what weed smell like. Most people I know in my age group have tried marijuana at some point in their lives.
ARE BONGS, PIPES AND OTHER PARAPHERNALIA ILLEGAL, AS WELL?
Yeah. You can't find them in shops or anything. It's all underground. From what I've heard, the quality of the pipes is really bad here. The more illegal something is, the more crappy it is when you get it from underground sources.
I have a funny story about that, actually. I know someone really close to me who ordered a pipe from Europe or something, and then the pipe never arrived, because it was confiscated. That person ended up getting a letter asking them to report to the police station for a urine test.
SO IF YOU WERE TO PUT A POT LEAF IN YOUR BAND'S ARTWORK, OR REFERENCE SMOKING A BLUNT IN ONE OF YOUR SONGS, COULD MARIJANNAH GET IN TROUBLE FOR THAT?
Well, it definitely wouldn't put us in a good position. Singapore is very small, and word gets around quick. There aren't many bands. So doing that would probably make the police look into us more, and we wouldn't want that. If the cops decide to come to one of our shows, some kids will have a hard time.
HERE IN THE WEST, MARIJUANA AND METAL GO HAND IN HAND. IT'S RARE TO GO TO A SHOW AND NOT SMELL POT. I IMAGINE THAT'S NOT THE CASE AT ALL FOR THE SINGAPORE SCENE.
No, most people who do it do it in their own homes or in hiding. I was in San Francisco two years ago and I watched Om play, and once they start, smoke just fills the air — it's like a cloud. That was quite a sight to see. You'll never see that in Singapore. If we smell it in public, it's a shocking thing to us. We'll all start looking around, because it's not normal. You don't see it in the public eye. People do it in their homes, or in secluded areas where nobody will see them.
IT SOUNDS LIKE URINE TESTING IS EVERYWHERE IN SINGAPORE.
If you look suspicious at all, the police can just take you back to the station and have you pee in a cup. That's how most people get caught. Surprisingly, they don't drug test for jobs. I guess they don't have to do the tests — since the law can catch you any time its wants — so companies assume the police will test anyone who's suspicious.
MARIJUANA CAN BE DETECTED IN URINE DAYS, WEEKS, OR EVEN MONTHS AFTER SMOKING. DOES IT MATTER IF SOMEONE IS CAUGHT IN THE ACT, OR IS THE SMALLEST TRACE OF WEED IN YOUR SYSTEM SUFFICIENT GROUNDS TO THROW SOMEONE IN THE CLINK?
Personal consumption of any drugs is illegal in Singapore, including marijuana. Say you go on vacation to California or someplace else where weed is legal and smoke. If, for some reason, you have to take a drug test once you get back to Singapore and it's not out of your system, you'll still go to jail. For first-time offenders, it can be anywhere nine to 12 months, but most people do six.
BACK IN 2016, SINGAPORE'S NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION ANNOUNCED ITS PLAN TO INVEST IN MEDICAL MARIJUANA AND DEVELOP SYNTHETIC CANNABINOIDS. HOW DO YOU THINK THAT'LL AFFECT ATTITUDES GOING FORWARD?
Living in Singapore for so long, I would think it's unlikely that the medical stuff will even pass here. If that becomes legal, that alone would be a huge step, and is probably more necessary than making the recreational stuff legal. People who are living with chronic pain and chronic diseases would benefit greatly from the medical-grade stuff, and I think that's more important than making it street-legal or anything. If they do that, I'll be happy.