Cha* was 12 when she snorted ketamine for the first time at a friend’s home. She took it again the next day, and every day for the next two months. Looking back, the Hongkonger, now 19, says she was trying to get over breaking up with her boyfriend. She went on to try methamphetamine, cannabis and cocaine. She took methamphetamine, commonly known as Ice, the most, spending HK$500 (US$64) for 1.75g which lasted her a week. “I became so addicted that whenever I felt sad or bored, I thought of drugs and turned to them,” says Cha, the younger of two daughters. She dropped out of school after becoming pregnant, gave birth at 16 and sank deeper into her habit. She turned to drugs more often after the coronavirus pandemic struck, disrupting her efforts to find a job. More young Hongkongers have been found taking drugs, as the gloomy social and economic environment after the social unrest of 2019 was made worse by the pandemic, which brought lockdowns and social-distancing restrictions. There were 220 reported drug abusers aged under 21 in the first three months of this year, up by 47 per cent from 150 in the same period last year, according to Central Registry of Drug Abuse statistics released last month. The number of known young abusers climbed to 525 for the whole of last year, up 6 per cent from 494 in 2019, despite a 4 per cent drop in the total number of reported drug abusers, from 5,772 to 5,569. Reported drug abusers are those the Central Registry of Drug Abuse is informed about by various sources including law enforcement agencies, treatment and welfare agencies, tertiary institutions, hospitals and clinics. Not all of those reported are arrested. They took drugs out of curiosity, to relieve stress, or to identify with peers Social worker Katy Wan Police detained 1,041 people for drug offences in the first three months of this year, up by nearly 60 per cent from 652 the same period last year. They included 147 aged under 21, up more than 50 per cent from 97 arrested in the same period last year. Under the law, the maximum penalty for major drug offences, such as trafficking and manufacturing of dangerous drugs, is life imprisonment and a fine of HK$5 million. Anyone who possesses or consumes a dangerous drug may be fined up to HK$1 million and jailed for up to seven years. I t starts with ‘being curious’ The Rainbow Lutheran Centre, which helps psychotropic substance abusers, received 10 new cases of drug abusers under 21 during the first half of this year. It had nine such cases for the whole of last year, and six in 2019. Social worker Katy Wan Kit-ying, the officer in charge of the centre, says many young people felt more stressed when the pandemic followed the political turmoil in 2019. The lockdowns and social-distancing rules stopped them from going out and seeing their friends. “They took drugs out of curiosity, to relieve stress, or to identify with peers,” she says. Some took drugs with their peers when schools were closed because of the pandemic. Wong Kwok-chun, a social worker with the Sane Centre of the Hong Kong Children and Youth Services, says he has noticed more young abusers using substances such as ketamine and cannabis, rather than stimulants like Ice, and attributed this to increased stress and anxiety among young people over the past two years. The centre provides treatment and rehabilitation for about 350 abusers annually. Others say reported cases went up when parents discovered their children’s drug habits because people stayed at home more. Hong Kong police seize 1.8 tonnes of cocaine and ketamine between January and May Abusers buy cannabis online too Construction worker David*, 22, smokes half a joint of cannabis every night. He did not like the drug when he tried it the first time in 2018 with friends on a rooftop. He felt nauseous when he inhaled the drug from a bong and did not use it again. Then, a year later, a friend introduced him to joints. This time, he became a habitual user. He says he pays about HK$100 for a gram, which lasts about three days. He mostly smokes it in his room after work, out of sight of his parents, or with friends. Almost all his friends use cannabis, he says. “I don’t think cannabis is a dangerous drug. As long as I can control the amount I use, it won’t have severe adverse effects,” David says. Social workers and experts however are alarmed by an emerging cannabis culture among young Hongkongers. Also known as marijuana, the hallucinogen is the most common drug among young abusers. Nearly half of all reported young drug abusers in the first quarter of this year used cannabis. Other common drugs among this group are cocaine, Ice and ketamine. Social worker Wan says young people prefer cannabis because it is easy to use, is relatively cheap, and online sales have made it readily available. Crystal Tse Tsz-ying, a social worker at the Hong Kong Christian Service PS33 Tsim Sha Tsui Centre, which provides drug treatment and rehabilitation services, says a cannabis culture has taken off, especially online, making the drug appear “chill and chic” and blinding young people to its risks. Social media sites depict the substance in a casual way, referring to it using slang terms such as “420” and “stoner”, and circulating memes about it. Many shops in Tsim Sha Tsui also target the young selling glass bongs and crystal pipes for cannabis. “What we are up against is not the substance itself, but the culture behind it,” Tse says. Professor Cheung Yuet-wah, head of the department of sociology at Shue Yan University, blames the trend on the legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis in some countries, including Canada in 2018. “That has sent the wrong message to young people in Hong Kong that using cannabis is not serious,” he says. Looking back, I feel I have wasted too much time. But it is never too late to start over Drug addict Cha Cheung, who is chairman of the subcommittee on treatment and rehabilitation of the advisory body Action Committee Against Narcotics, says young people now only regard narcotics like heroin as drugs. Psychotropic substances such as cannabis can affect the central nervous system, altering perception, mood or consciousness. He says young users underestimate the risks, and some tend to trivialise the risks to justify their use, which can lead to addiction and harmful consequences. Cheung says Hong Kong must do more to prevent drug abuse among the young. Apart from holding talks in schools to highlight the dangers, teachers need to learn to identify drug abusers and refer them to help centres. ‘Long road to recovery’ Hongkonger Samuel, 21, started using cannabis at 18 while attending high school in Australia. He says his host family’s 18-year-old son offered him cannabis and, out of curiosity, he tried it. Soon he was smoking joints or inhaling cannabis from a bong every Friday and Saturday. “After about a year, I became addicted to it,” says Samuel, who did not want his full name revealed. The only child of civil servants, he continued using cannabis after he finished high school and returned to Hong Kong in May last year, keeping his habit a secret from his parents. But one day in September last year, he was stopped by police after buying cannabis from a dealer in Mong Kok and they found 5.2g of the drug on him. He was arrested and put on two years’ probation during which he must be home by 11pm every day and do a urine test every two weeks. He has stayed away from cannabis since then. It was hard at first, but he says working out, talking with his supportive parents, and staying away from drug abusers have helped. He has gained about 20kg and become healthier, he says, and is looking forward to starting a degree in September. Hong Kong law school uses tech to determine likely sentencing in drug cases The Sister Aquinas Memorial Women’s Treatment Centre, which provides residential drug treatment and rehabilitation services for young female drug abusers, received about 210 new cases during the first half of this year. It admitted about 350 new cases for the whole of last year, and about 310 in 2019. Cho Mei-wah, superintendent of the centre in Sheung Shui, says many of the women are multi-drug abusers, and long-term drug abuse affected their physical and mental health, and damaged their work and relationships. In severe cases, the women had hallucinations, self-harmed or were suicidal. She says many drug abusers are hooked on drugs as a coping method. “The compulsion comes from the mind more than the body,” she says. Apart from treating the women’s physical and mental conditions, the centre provides gardening, arts and dancing classes as well as vocational training. Its residents include Cha, who is trying to put her life together after years of heavy dependence on drugs. Her long-term use of ketamine caused severe pain in her abdomen and bladder, making her incontinent sometimes. Cha says she tried to quit drugs when she found out she was pregnant, but gave up after just nine days. She gave birth to her son in 2017, but has nothing to do with the father. Two years later she was dealing drugs, earning as much as HK$10,000 on some days. She was forced to change after she was arrested in March this year on charges related to fraud. The offence was not related to drugs, but she was put on probation for 18 months and referred to the women’s treatment centre. In May she gave birth to a daughter by a different man, whom she also no longer sees. Cha expects to be at the centre for a year. She wakes at 7.30am, followed by a full day of classes where she learns handicraft-making, dancing and gardening, among other things. She exercises with other residents, before going to bed at 10.30pm. She says the healthy lifestyle has helped her manage her craving for drugs. Her parents are looking after her son, now four years old, and she has placed her infant daughter in foster care while she decides whether to give her up for adoption. Centre superintendent Cho says the recovery process may be long and hard for addicts, and it is easy to relapse when they leave the centre and are exposed to temptation. She adds that the key lies in self-determination as well as opportunities, including jobs, to lead a life they think is worth living. Cha hopes to take courses put on by the Employees Retraining Board and find work as a hotel room attendant. “Looking back, I feel I have wasted too much time. But it is never too late to start over,” she says. *Name changed at interviewee’s request.