Right ammunition needed to win drug fight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 December, 2009, 12:00am

The city's psychiatrists have entered the debate about the voluntary drug-testing trial in Tai Po schools at the eleventh hour. It is a shame the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists did not shake off the constraints of its official journal's publication deadlines and speak out earlier. In the strongest criticism yet by a professional body, it cites evidence that the scheme is likely to fail to achieve its objectives of deterrence and early detection of youth drug abuse.

Coming out sooner is unlikely, though, to have made any difference to a government that wants to be seen to be doing something about the youth drug problem. It has not been deterred by mounting criticism and doubts about its approach. Indeed, the authors of the paper, including a clinical substance abuse specialist in a public hospital, admit that they do not expect to change the administration's views. And the profession does not claim to have all the answers. However, what sets it apart from the officials, educators, law enforcement officers and media who have been setting the agenda is that psychiatrists have face-to-face clinical experience in trying to help abusers. That is not to say that they, too, do not have their own agendas, such as raising their specialty's profile and its claim on the public purse. But they are bound to have views on what strategies have a chance of success that would have led to a better informed debate.

The journal article says what this newspaper pointed out a long time ago when the government first started looking at in-school random drug-testing. Extensive overseas experience, including in Britain and the United States, indicates that that such testing fails to achieve the aims of early detection and deterrence. It also raises issues of ethics, privacy and confidence in parent-teacher-student relationships that do nothing to resolve fundamental problems of effective communication and trust.

The authors argue that the root cause of Hong Kong's youth drug problem is not how to identify abusers, since teachers and social workers with a little experience (not to mention involved parents) could easily do so. The real worry is the lack of resources to treat them. They cite a small number of public hospital psychiatrists who deal with substance abuse, limited training in it at medical schools and lack of knowledge among private-clinic doctors.

They have a point. After all, drug abuse, and all the health and behavioural problems it leads to have their origins in a social context. Undersecretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok says it takes time to train substance-abuse specialists, and the government needs to collect data [from the scheme] and lay plans for such supporting measures. That rather misses the point. There is no question about the shortage of substance-abuse expertise now, or that the city's dire shortage of psychiatric services generally is well established by anecdotal evidence from social workers. Unless it is tackled urgently there is a real risk that the college of psychiatrists is right when it says that initiatives like the drug-testing trial, whatever the results, will turn out to be a waste of money.

Sadly, the risk of involvement with drugs goes with the territory of youth. The answer lies in better communication and trust between parents, children and teachers backed by more funding for treatment, a wide range of education programmes and enlightened policing that includes community involvement. Despite our misgivings about random drug-testing in schools, we trust the trial will at least help show that this is the best way forward.