On the mark

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 July, 2010, 12:00am


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The objectives of the drug-testing trial scheme in Tai Po schools were made abundantly clear at the outset. It was meant to strengthen the resolve of students to stay away from drugs. With the support of their parents, more than 12,400 students have joined the scheme voluntarily to make that pledge. Now they are in a better position to say 'no' to their peers when tempted to try drugs.

The scheme is also meant to assist students troubled by drugs and to motivate them to seek help. Since the scheme was announced last summer, the Counselling Centres for Psychotropic Substances Abusers serving Tai Po have received some 80 self-referral cases involving youngsters, more than double the number over the same period in the previous year.

With the support of school principals, teachers, social workers, parents and students of the 23 participating schools, the scheme has been conducted smoothly. All personal information related to drug testing has been properly protected, according to the scheme protocol.

Some questioned whether the HK$11 million budgeted for the scheme would be well spent. In fact, only one-third of the money was used for testing. The majority of the resources were used to engage social workers and teachers to enhance drug education programmes for students (including those not joining the scheme), and to provide professional support services to those seeking help.

We are not jumping to conclusions and endorsing school drug testing categorically. Research has been under way, at the same time, to evaluate the scheme in terms of its impact on students' awareness, attitudes and behaviour, and to suggest improvements as appropriate. It will examine the validity of common concerns - about trust between students and their parents and teachers, protecting privacy, and so forth. It will also look into other local and overseas experiences.

Findings should be available in the third quarter. We will study the results carefully, engage stakeholders and decide on the way forward. Meanwhile, we are keeping an open mind about extending the trial scheme, in the interim, to sustain the momentum and avoid undesirable gaps.

Over the past decade or so we have seen differing trends of abuse involving various drugs, with the number of psychotropic substance abusers overtaking the number of heroin abusers since 2007. But any suggestion that the drug problem is not serious is a misunderstanding of the facts.

Almost all reported young drug abusers take psychotropic substances (such as marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines). Like heroin, they are addictive in nature and can seriously harm the body. According to the Central Registry of Drug Abuse (CRDA), the proportion of psychotropic substance abusers who say they take drugs to avoid the physical discomfort of quitting the habit rose from 4.6 per cent in 2002 to 20.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Psychotropic substances affect the mind, seriously impairing memory, thinking and speech. Serious mental diseases, sometimes irreversible, may result along with harm to other organs in the body. The damage done by ketamine to the kidney and bladder is well known.

Psychotropic substances are subject to the same control as heroin in the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. The Court of Appeal in 2008 accepted compelling medical evidence regarding the addictive and harmful effect of ketamine and Ecstasy, and substantially raised the sentencing tariffs for trafficking in them.

More worrying is the hidden peer pressure to take psychotropic substances. Young drug abusers may go unnoticed by parents and teachers for years until their problems become serious; by then the damage may be permanent. Along the way, many of their peers might have been lured into the drugs trap.

According to the latest, large-scale student survey completed for the 2008-09 school year, 4.3 per cent of secondary students in Hong Kong have abused drugs - taken illicit substances - at least once. This is lower than the proportion of student drug abusers in many other places: 34.1 per cent in the United States (Grade 10, 2008) and 23 per cent (male) and 17 per cent (female) across 35 European countries (aged 15-16, 2007).

In Hong Kong, the 2008-09 survey reveals a 34 per cent increase in the number of secondary students who have tried drugs since 2004-05. As for the number of students taking drugs within 30 days of the survey, the increase is 86 per cent. These figures are corroborated by the CRDA's statistics. The number of reported drug abusers under age 21 saw a significant rise of 54 per cent in the past five years, increasing the share of young people in the abuser population from 14.7 to 24 per cent.

What's the correct interpretation of all these figures? Should we draw comfort from the comparison with Western countries, or should we not be alarmed by the local trend and take staunch efforts to prevent youngsters being pulled down that spiral path already trodden by so many?

The choice is for us to take. The administration is adamant about maintaining a zero-tolerance approach to drugs. School drug testing is only one of the new initiatives we are trying out, to curb an unhealthy trend and counter a casual attitude to drugs among our young people. It comes on top of the many measures we are already taking in preventive education, policing, treatment and rehabilitation.

We might disagree about the means. But let us all send a clear message to the younger generation that taking drugs is unacceptable, and that they must guard against thinking that taking psychotropic substances is not harmful or addictive.

Lai Tung-kwok is the undersecretary for security