We have a way; where's the will to tackle drugs?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 April, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong is fast becoming a K-society, K as in ketamine; it is everywhere you look. The fact that it is a soft drug doesn't make it any less dangerous. Ketamine has several properties that make it a drug of choice for the masses. This drug is not about exclusivity; social workers in the know say that four people can get high by sharing just HK$20 worth of ketamine. Its cheapness explains its socially penetrative power. Schoolchildren can use their pocket money to get high without their parents being any the wiser. As a result, about 80 per cent of young drug addicts are taking ketamine.

Ketamine owes its ubiquity to another fact: unlike cocaine or marijuana, which are plant based, ketamine is chemically based and easy to mass produce in illicit labs in southern China. Because of its low cost, and low profit margin, drug pushers depend on mass distribution for their returns. Hence its ability to inundate the lower reaches of society.

According to Professor Karl Tsim Wah-keung, a biological scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, ketamine is physiologically non-addictive; it is, nonetheless, psychologically addictive. Users slip in and out of their euphoria, giving ketamine its unique appeal. But associated organ damage is permanent. Behaviorally, ketamine saps logical thinking and the ability to focus.

Tsim says that one of the major problems in testing ketamine is its rapid turnover within the body, making it virtually undetectable to urine tests that have not been administered immediately after the drug has been taken.

What does this say about the pilot drug-testing programme in Tai Po schools? The government grandly reports zero detection since its campaign began. This record doesn't square with the news that drug abuse has surfaced in more than 90 per cent of local schools.

Our officials need to face this menace courageously. But, instead, we get a compromised cosmetic show in which no school gets tainted, and no student gets detected. Everyone just tiptoes round a touchy but vital issue.

Tsim believes that a random hair test is vital for an effective drug-testing programme. Unlike a urine test, a hair test can reveal evidence of drug abuse up to three months later. It is reliable and respectful of personal privacy.

The government's own laboratories have the capability to do hair tests. The drawback is that each test requires 50 hairs. In parallel, Tsim has developed a far less intrusive procedure that requires just two strands. This platform has served international schools and NGOs but, so far, the government hasn't come calling.

So, the technology is there; we just need the political will. Hong Kong must act in concert with mainland law-enforcement authorities, even if it means subsidising their drug busts. Without squeezing the source, we will only be scratching the surface.

This is not the time to be cagey or circumspect. This malignancy is spreading rapidly through every age bracket and social layer, leaving our social fabric in tatters.

Philip Yeung is a Hong Kong- based university editor. philipkcyeung2@yahoo.com