Four years in the making, a large-scale government survey presents some striking figures about drug abuse among young students. But take a closer look and the picture may not be so gloomy. The report finds 90 per cent of schools have pupils with drug problems. The survey does not, however, reveal how serious the drug problem is at these schools.
The figures on abuse among the 158,089 students surveyed are still relatively low compared with overseas data. They raise serious concerns and there is certainly no room for complacency. It is also important not to overreact. There is always the danger that such figures will prompt panic and lead to draconian measures that might not only be counterproductive but harmful. One in 27 students - or 3.7 per cent - have reported taking psychotropic drugs. In primary schools, the figure is 1.6 per cent; in secondary schools, it is 4.3 per cent, one percentage point higher than four years ago. On the basis of the findings, security chief Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong appears to have changed his mind. Three years ago he said drug abuse in schools was not a serious problem. Now he has described it as 'alarming'. The change of mind may perhaps have less to do with the new findings and more with the fact that the government has, during this time, made cracking down on drugs a political priority.
In the latest budget, the government has earmarked an extra HK$3 billion to fund anti-drug programmes, treatment and rehabilitation. This is welcome, so long as it is spent wisely. Lee is right that drug abuse in upper primary schools needs to be tackled - that should be a priority.
Voluntary drug tests at Tai Po schools started three months ago; it is too soon to judge their effectiveness. Officials, parents and teachers must not be overly hasty in expanding the trial tests to other districts. In the end, communication and understanding between parents and children is the key. Informed education programmes about drugs are also important. But drug tests, voluntary or not, can easily turn into surveillance programmes that breach trust, the most important element in the fight against drugs.