Alarm at rise in use of crack cocaine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am

After a year in which the volume of cocaine seized by police grew tenfold and the street price fell by 40 per cent, authorities now have something else to worry about - the emergence of crack cocaine.

Police and medical workers have reported a big increase in the number of people getting into trouble with crack, a far more potent and addictive form that retails for less than its powdered counterpart.

'In the last couple of years crack cocaine has come into popularity,' said Kwai Chung Substance Abuse Assessment Unit senior medical officer Ben Cheung. 'There has been a change in the period from 2003 to 2004; where before all my patients were taking the powdered version, now 79 per cent of them are here for problems with crack.'

And over the same period, the average age of users had dropped from 32.1 years to 19.6, said Dr Cheung, and 'availability of crack has probably been behind that'.

The rise of crack has raised serious concern, although the top official in the fight against illegal drugs, Narcotics Commissioner Rosanna Ure Lui Hang-sai, said it must be kept in perspective.

'Cocaine abuse is certainly something that has been on our radar for some time, but the incidence of people using [any form of] cocaine is still not very high in comparison with heroin,' Mrs Ure said. Of 10,124 drug users registered with the government last year, only 94 said they had used cocaine.

'Put in the overall context, heroin is still the most commonly abused drug in Hong Kong,' she said. 'But what we have found is that the number of heroin users is coming down and the number of people abusing psychotropic drugs, of which cocaine is one, is on the rise. So we have reallocated resources to address this.'

She said cocaine had been given new emphasis in education programmes, more resources had been put into developing treatment options, and more research was needed into its effects.

'Because crack cocaine has normally been consumed by people of different ethnic backgrounds, we may need to study the issue in more detail to see how it will affect the Hong Kong community, which is mainly Chinese,' Mrs Ure said.

Police are also concerned about what effect a rapid increase in the use of crack could have on society.

'We're very concerned about it,' said detective senior inspector Paul Lewis of the Narcotics Bureau. 'Crack is not totally new to Hong Kong but we've definitely seen the impact it has had overseas, especially in the US and Europe, and we'd really like to nip it in the bud.'

The main concerns were that because it was cheaper, it could take hold in lower socio-economic groups, where its addictive qualities and propensity to cause psychosis could cause big problems.

'The price of cocaine is coming down,' Dr Cheung said, 'but not to the extent explained by more being available and many more people doing it. In fact, it appears that more and more people are switching to crack - the dose is smaller, so the price is lower. It is more widespread and it is more penetrative of different sectors of society.'

This was a real concern to Inspector Lewis. 'Previously, when cocaine was very expensive it was confined to fairly wealthy people getting it delivered to their door and was not widespread,' he said. 'Crack cocaine will be a different picture altogether. You don't have to have a lot of money to take cocaine these days.'