The Hong Kong customs reports cross-border drug smuggling. Photo: Nora Tam

Hong Kong youth would gain from a frank discussion about drugs

Sky Siu says skirting the issue in Hong Kong society has the effect of pushing the problem of abuse underground, making it much harder to detect and tackle

Sky Siu

I often hear people say that Hong Kong's drug problem is "nowhere near as bad" as other places in the world. It may be true that we seldom hear about overdoses, have an open debate about legalising drugs and, overall, see very few high-profile drug trafficking cases in Hong Kong.

With under 1 per cent of the population reported by the Central Registry of Drug Abuse to be drug abusers - 8,926 people out of more than 7 million - Hong Kong's "problem" appears to be a grain of salt.

Yet, while the conversation about drugs has long been had in other countries, in Hong Kong it remains highly taboo. With the "hush one, hush all" culture on any negative or inauspicious topic, the drug situation here is, unfortunately, hidden.

According to the Security Bureau's Narcotics Division, the "abuse history" of newly reported abusers - the average time it takes to identify users since their first use - had surged from 1.9 years in 2009 to 5.2 years in 2014.

Of reported users under 21, 82 per cent say they use drugs at home or at a friend's place, increasing the likelihood of the problem going undetected.

The International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on Friday, is a stark reminder that society must not shun a conversation about drugs. First established by the United Nations as part of its campaign against drug abuse, this day forces all of us, in Hong Kong and across the world, to question our strategies in striving for a healthy society.

How are young people supposed to know what drugs are if we choose not to talk about them? Where can parents find information on what to do if they find their child is using ketamine or meth at home? How are we supposed to prosecute this war on drugs if we do not speak about the underlying causes?

Regardless of how low the numbers are, Hong Kong's drug situation is, in fact, a problem, and its fundamentally hidden nature makes it even more deserving of attention.

We do not need to wait until the situation manifests into a more serious issue in order to take action. We can start a discussion and offer education opportunities for all to learn about drugs and their impact.

Above all, we should start with our young.

In recent years, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, along with the World Health Organisation, has placed much emphasis on youth prevention, looking at the global drug situation from a health and human rights perspective. They not only aim to reduce the supply of drugs, but also seek to undermine the desire for illegal substances by promoting young people's overall health - including catering to their psychological needs, personal growth and social mobility.

Hong Kong ought to do the same, and place the emphasis on health in our community. Our sense of responsibility to younger generations cannot lie solely in ensuring their academic success.

Young people should be presented with alternative options that are practical, useful and relevant to their age. Drug and alcohol education should not only present the facts, but also an all-round perspective, both the pros and cons, to help them with their own decision-making.

We can help young people develop positively by providing them with a space - within the school, family or community - to be themselves, to express and share their fears, to question and dream. Cultivating healthy, positive values and perspectives in our education, culture and families is equally important.

We must enable young people to gain access to the information they need to make wise choices in life. With an open conversation and the right kind of information, young people - in Hong Kong and beyond - can flourish and make informed decisions for their future.

Perhaps only then can we can truly be brave enough to say that Hong Kong's "drug problem" is really not much of a problem at all.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Frank talk on drugs can only benefit young