Hong Kong girls using wider variety of drugs than boys as addicts get younger

Charities warn that drug users are getting younger and girls are using a wider variety of substances than boys. But official figures only tell part of the story. Bernice Chan talks to a former addict

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 10:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 10:38am

On a cool spring morning, a group of young women line up at a former school compound in a leafy corner of Sheung Shui to receive graduation certificates. They've been given training in useful skills such as cooking, dressmaking and applying make-up, but that's not their primary achievement. This is a rehabilitation centre run by the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers (Sarda) and the women are celebrating their reintegration into society after managing to stay clean for a year.

Lily, a 21-year-old peer counsellor, is among the crowd of friends, parents and social workers gathered for the occasion at the Sister Aquinas Memorial Women's Treatment Centre. It wasn't that long ago that she underwent the same ordeal as other addicts did to wean themselves off drugs.

All the women enter the rehabilitation centre voluntarily. The initial period is hellish as their bodies react to going cold turkey. They feel tired and nauseous, and they sweat and shake; those hooked on opiates such as heroin are also prone to diarrhoea. This is why during the first weeks of treatment addicts are constantly switching between bed and bathroom - some even resort to wearing adult diapers because they don't always make it to the toilet in time.

Lily started taking drugs when she was just 13. Many of her friends were into it and, despite some initial resistance, she soon fell in with the crowd, starting with ketamine (popular as a party drug, it is used legally for anaesthesia and veterinary medicine).

"The first time I took ketamine I didn't feel good. But no one pushed me, I just kept taking it because [eventually] it made me feel comfortable and happy," she says. "My brain felt like it was emptied out."

Before long, Lily was experimenting with cannabis, Ice (methamphetamine) and cocaine.

Her ketamine habit wasn't too difficult to maintain, she says, as a small bag of pills cost just HK$100. Moreover, she didn't always have to buy her own drugs - young men would often offer them. "It's like them buying us a drink or a meal," she says.

Lily embodies a number of the trends that organisations such as Sarda and Caritas Hong Kong have been observing in the past five years - drug users are getting younger and girls are taking a greater mix of drugs than boys, as boys are often expected to share their supply with girls.

According to Sarda social worker Winnie Cheung Man-wai, her colleagues have recorded cases of drug addiction in two 12-year-old boys, one of whom started when he was just nine.

A rough breakdown of people under Sarda's care shows that a considerably greater proportion of females are using a wider mix of drugs than males - 71 per cent of female addicts are using two or more drugs, particularly cocaine, compared to 46.4 per cent of males.

The young women hang out in cybercafes, karaoke lounges and pubs, and because guys are offering drugs to them - as enticement or social courtesy - they have greater access to different kinds of drugs, Cheung says. And because teenage girls often have low self-esteem to start with, they are more prone to depression after taking drugs and are more vulnerable to sexual assault, she adds.

The gender dynamic in Hong Kong's drug culture is also illustrated in Ah Ming's story.

His face is still marked with red blotches and he suffers from extremely dry skin from prolonged meth use, even though the 22-year-old says he has managed to stay clean since November. He began using methamphetamine because of his girlfriend. She was also an addict and would constantly pressure him to make more money to fund her habit.

However, his own drug use eventually spun out of control. Ah Ming lost his job in a salon and wound up sleeping on the streets before he decided to seek help from Caritas.

Gender is a very important aspect of drug use and manifests itself in different ways depending on the drug, says Karen Joe Laidler, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong who is studying drug addiction.

"Young people's first experiences with drugs are with a group of people, with a seasoned person guiding and shaping the other's experience," she says.

Addicts typically develop obsessions as long-term use, especially of meth, takes a toll. With men, this fixation typically involves things related to speed and energy, Laidler says, with males in North America often becoming focused on cars.

"For females, they become focused on cleaning the house, but whether they are tidy or not is another question."

Because women pay greater attention to their appearance, they start picking their skin - a habit dubbed tweaking- and develop wounds and scars.

However, Laidler doesn't subscribe to the gateway theory that use of soft drugs leads to so-called harder drugs - that is like comparing stimulants with hallucinatory drugs.

The process of drug use is "more like going to a bar where you can order beer or wine but there are also cocktails you can try", she says.

Lily's foray into meth use caused her to lose a lot of weight and become extremely dehydrated. She also became paranoid and began to hear and see things. "I thought there were people watching me and so when I got out of the elevator I would run to my flat."

Lily was eventually arrested with a few friends for possession of narcotics when police caught them taking drugs along the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

In hindsight she's relieved to have been caught because of the severe damage that her addiction was inflicting on her, both physically and psychologically.

Lily links part of her descent into drugs to a deteriorating relationship with her parents - as the middle child she felt they just didn't care about her. "My parents argued all the time and I would find reasons not to go home," she says.

Frontline social workers have seen many teenage users with backgrounds like Lily and Ah Ming. These users often have antagonistic relationships with their parents and feel they are ignored at home, or come from homes where communication has broken down.

"It's easy for the young ones to get access to drugs. They take them to escape because they feel lost," Cheung says. "By taking drugs they go from feeling depressed to very high, so it's like a miracle."

On the face of it, official figures on drug abuse may seem encouraging. The Security Bureau's narcotics division shows a decline in the number of drug users, with 6,797 reported in the first three quarters of last year. This is down from 7,643 from the same period the year before.

However, experts and frontline workers say reported cases represent a fraction of the total. They have warned of the secretive nature of drug abuse, particularly the widespread use of psychotropic drugs among young people.

"There are many that are hidden, taken in people's homes, so we don't know the actual number," says Lee Wai-yee, superintendent of the rehab centre.

Laidler adds: "Documenting reports about drug users are estimates at best. With heroin users, they are addicted to methadone [used to reduce withdrawal symptoms] so these numbers can be counted at rehab centres. But with cannabis and ketamine a large number of cases may never show up in the records."

Hotlines and other public services are available for users who want help. "But the real test is staying away from drugs and the temptation afterwards," Laidler says.

Lily has been doing well so far, thanks in no small part to the support of her parents. Although they divorced, her parents visited her every week when she was in rehab.

"A lot of parents don't know how to communicate with their children," Lee says. Instead of cultivating their relationship and working out a solution together, they simply berate or lecture the children for using drugs. So the Sister Aquinas centre holds weekly classes to teach parents to express their feelings more effectively.

"At first it was strange to communicate with my mother with a social worker present," Lily recalls. "But I would tell her what I learned, ask her how things were and give her handwritten letters to pass to my siblings."

Her work at the centre, providing encouragement to other girls struggling with addiction and listening to their problems, is a constant reminder of her own mistakes.

"It's a kind of awakening to think of where I used to be," Lily says. "It would have been very difficult for me to get off drugs if I wasn't in the rehab centre."