THE crime figures for 1994 announced by the police yesterday make welcome reading. Bank robberies slumped and robberies involving firearms were down to about a third of the level of 1991. Hong Kong's crime rate, the police say, is slightly lower than that of Singapore, although the territory has resisted the temptation to resort to the kind of violent punishments that are popular with the public but largely irrelevant when it comes to reducing crime. However, there is one aspect to the crime statistics that is disturbing now, and could spell disaster in the future: a sharp rise in drug offences, particularly those involving young people. Drug arrests involving people below the age of 21 rose 34.1 per cent last year from a year earlier; the number of young drug abusers registered between January and September jumped 45.1 per cent from a year earlier, compared with a rise of 13 per cent of all ages. Governor Chris Patten is to convene a drug summit in March. The statistics published yesterday point to the size of the task of containing drug abuse in the territory and to the need for a co-ordinated attack. Hong Kong's proximity to the Golden Triangle means there is a steady supply of narcotics, while the drug ice is flooding across the border from factories in southern China, and an influx of young expatriates is bringing marijuana and other soft drugs into the territory in ever-increasing quantities. The police yesterday attributed a slight rise in petty crime to opportunistic offences by drug addicts, but the experience of many countries, particularly the United States, indicates that widespread drug abuse can help generate an explosion in violent crime and undo years of careful police work. Singapore's inability to prevent a sharp rise in drug offences suggests the limitations of a punitive approach, as does the US experience: mandatory tough sentences have filled prisons but failed to empty the streets of dealers. Hong Kong must pursue a multi-pronged approach that combines the punishment of offenders, particularly dealers, with intelligence work aimed at reducing the flow of drugs into the territory, educational work aimed at discouraging young people from experimenting with drugs, and the expansion of facilities for helping addicts overcome their dependency. Tackling the laundering of drug money might also make Hong Kong less attractive to major dealers. Such a package of measures would involve increased spending, and would lack the popular appeal of beating, or killing, drug offenders, but it would at least represent a genuine attempt to tackle a problem that threatens to undermine the quality of life in the territory for everybody.