Hong Kong’s growing drug problem: Ice responsible for one in four psych patients at Tai Po hospital

Doctor says problem reflects growing usage of methamphetamine across Hong Kong due to increased supply

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 8:09pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 8:39am

Methamphetamine or “Ice” was found to be the main reason why a quarter of psychiatric patients in a New Territories hospital suffered from serious conditions such as hallucination and delusions.

This problem in the Northern District reflected a growing citywide trend of “Ice” use due to a rise in supply, a doctor said.

“The trend is worrying,” Dr Dicky Chung Wai-sau, chief of psychiatry at Tai Po Hospital, said. “Other than the health impact, the family of the patients will also suffer a lot as they may have disruptive or even threatening behaviours.

“It will also increase the burden on the medical system and other social costs.”

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Despite international efforts to crack down on the drug, other countries have also reported an alarming rise in the usage of “Ice”. Australia declared the situation a public health crisis this year with a tripling in the number of regular users since 2010.

In February, three Hongkongers and a mainland Chinese man were arrested in connection with the seizure of 720 litres of liquid methamphetamine valued at HK$7 billion – the largest in Australian history.

According to the Hong Kong Narcotics Division, there are 2,234 known drug abusers reported in the first quarter of this year, a drop from 3,169 in the same period in 2015.

The latest hospital study showed the proportion of mental health patients who abused drugs rose from 15 per cent in 2008 to 25 per cent this year, with participants comprising 232 patients, aged between 18 to 64.

Chung said methamphetamine, a stimulant that can damage the central nervous system, caused most of the patients to have mental conditions so severe that they required hospitalisation.

Although he did not have data on other areas, he believed another psychiatric hospital in Castle Peak saw a similar trend.

One patient in the Tai Po hospital, an 18-year-old boy who had abused methamphetamine for two years, was highly suspicious of people harming him, to the point that his family was no longer able to reason with him and he was left with no friends. His memory also deteriorated to a stage where he could not remember his name and telephone number.

But psychiatrist Dr Chan Fu said the boy was lucky to be able to recover 90 per cent of his brain functions after proper treatment as his addiction time was short and the damage had not reached the irreversible stage.

Abusers of meth usually develop more serious mental conditions as compared with users of other drugs such as ketamine. They have symptoms similar to that of schizophrenia, with a series of abnormal social behaviours such as confused thinking, being highly suspicious, hearing voices and reduced social activities, said Chan.

Its use would also lead to an irregular heart rate, hypertension, and other disorders similar to that of dementia. Since the drug would heighten their sensitivity, users may feel itchiness on their skin.

“It is as if there are bugs all over their body. It is not unusual for them have scratches on their body,” Chan said.

The patients were mostly referred to the hospital by the police after they had committed minor offences such as domestic violence, shoplifting or loitering.

Chung added that it was easy for patients to slip back into addiction, and subsequently into hospital, without proper public and family support.