Cannabis debate in Hong Kong not cut and dried

Hong Kong's 'happening' crowd may not see why it should be banned from smoking a joint, but the city's drug boss sees things another way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 4:55pm

On a quiet beach, as night deepens, a group of campers kick back, relax … and commit a crime that could cost them a HK$1 million fine and seven years in prison. The campers are no Bill and Ted-style loveable losers. The Hollywood archetype of the stoner doesn't fit this group of Hong Kong twenty- and thirtysomethings. They move in a world full of fellow high-achievers and respectable contributors to society: teachers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, insurance salesmen, mothers, jewellery designers, who all like to toke.

They are the children of a society that preaches abstinence to all drugs - except alcohol of course. The ones who were told how drugs would ruin their lives, guilt-tripped about how drug problems could pull a family apart.

Knowing about the effects of drugs like ketamine, heroin and cocaine are enough to put most of them off, but the same does not hold true for cannabis.

Hong Kong law remains firm on cannabis, but a growing number of jurisdictions are going easier on the drug - from US states such as Colorado to nations including Uruguay - legalising the weed, even if only for "medicinal" purposes.

Twenty US states and the capital Washington DC, have legalised the medical use of marijuana, while five more have legislation in the works.

Colorado and Washington state have fully legalised the growing and consumption of the weed.

And an expanding body of research backs the view that, while by no means safe, marijuana should not be classed in the same category as harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

But legalisation of marijuana, let alone decriminalisation, is not on the cards in Hong Kong, where possession and consumption is illegal.

"A dangerous drug is a dangerous drug. We have a zero-tolerance policy," says Commissioner for Narcotics Erika Hui Lam Yin-ming.

Regardless, "Andrew", a 25-year-old who works in the media industry, says: "For me, it's like my Friday night beer. I prefer it so much more than drinking."

Andrew started smoking when he was 15. He says he doesn't drink and is against using hard drugs.

"Weed does a lot less harm than alcohol, is a lot less antisocial, and it's healthier than going on a binge every Friday," he says.

It's also easier on his wallet.

"While you can spend HK$500 in a night on alcohol, HK$500 of weed might last me a month."

In 2010, the British medical journal the Lancet published a study on how harmful 20 different substances, from alcohol to cannabis to heroin, were to users and to people around them in the UK. The study put alcohol at the top of the list, followed by heroin, crack cocaine. Several others including tobacco, came in above cannabis.

The scientific journal Nature published a review in January that said old research that had shown a link between long-term cannabis consumption and decreasing IQ among users no longer held water.

Other studies in the United States, some carried out by the US National Institute of Health, showed the medical benefits of marijuana for patients with multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, nausea, vomiting, and for cancer patients who need to gain weight. Others show that the addictiveness of cannabis is less than that of tobacco and alcohol.

There have been no deaths by cannabis overdose recorded in the US; most deaths related to the drug are accidents in the vein of drink-driving. And states that allowed the use of cannabis in the 1970s saw no major surge in consumption. The view of the Hong Kong government is simple. Drug use in Hong Kong is down, so if the system isn't broken, why fix it?

The latest government survey of secondary school students shows that only 1-2 per cent have tried cannabis. The figure is closer to 20 per cent and 30 per cent in Europe and America, Hui says.

"We've succeeded in containing the problem. I don't see why we should be giving up the progress we've had... I think it would be irresponsible," she says.

"These places that have decriminalised the consumption of marijuana have their own problems."

She cites the Netherlands, which sees tourists causing trouble after coming to the country to get their hands on marijuana at coffee shops. The Dutch last year banned the sale of marijuana to tourists in border towns, where residents complained that drug tourism attracted crime and unwelcome visitors.

The law was overturned countrywide in November, but lawmakers said individual cities could decide whether or not they would sell to tourists.

Hui says the Security Bureau's stable of narcotics experts still believes marijuana to be addictive, and it's potency as a gateway drug - after which users move on to harder substances - should not be underestimated. And there are clear health hazards.

As for the medical use of marijuana, she says it is up to the medical practitioners to decide.

"It's still too early. Let's wait and see what happens to these places that have legalised," she adds.

But voices of dissent have long been heard from within the city's corridors of power. As long ago as 1994, justices Neil Kaplan and Gerard Godfrey said they supported the decriminalisation of cannabis, saying drug laws were failing to curb drug use.

"Cannabis use is now so widespread that [keeping it illegal] makes people think the law is an ass," Kaplan told the South China Morning Post.

He said decriminalisation would take the profit motive away from criminals and the government could regulate the trade, and separate users from criminal elements.

Almost 20 years later, Andrew agrees. He says it would make sense to regulate cannabis in the same way as alcohol and tobacco, as it is not entirely without its hazards.

"There are some people who do it really regularly and there's some sort of mental addiction," he says. "But it's a minority, maybe around 5 per cent."

Researchers seem to agree.

"It is true cannabis has some abuse potential, but its profile more closely resembles drugs in Schedule III (where codeine and dronabinol are listed)," researchers for the US National Institutes of Health wrote in a recent paper.

"I agree...that chronic use of cannabis correlates with mood changes and low motivation, especially when started in adolescence. In individuals with psychosis, it may trigger or worsen their symptoms," said David Nathan, a clinical associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School wrote in an op-ed for CNN in January. But Nathan supports legalised marijuana use by adults.

"Those who believe cannabis to be a gateway to opioids and other highly dangerous drugs fail to appreciate that the illegal purchase of marijuana exposes consumers to dealers who push the hard stuff. Given marijuana's popularity in this country, the consumption of more dangerous drugs could actually decrease if pot were purchased at a liquor store rather than on the street corner where heroin and crack are sold."

In Hong Kong, cannabis use has traditionally been associated with expatriates and, in particular, international school pupils. But the drug has grown in popularity among locals, with arrests for cannabis-related offences now split 50/50 between locals and expats.

And while the lengthy jail sentences remain on the statute books, the focus for users is on education rather than punishment, according to Hui.

"We should be focusing on those who sell, not those who take drugs," she says.

Last year 237 people were arrested for cannabis-related offences, while in 2008 the number was 523. The Central Registry of Drug Abuse reported 6,482 cases of psychotropic drug abuse last year, down from 7,670 in 2011.

The registry compiles statistics from public hospitals, NGOs the police and other sources, but does not claim to provide a complete picture of drug abuse in the city.