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Meth and the city: Exploring the surge in methamphetamine abuse in Hong Kong

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Methamphetamine is rife in Hong Kong. Drug busts are at a record high and addiction is rampant. Arthur Tam investigates the root of this pervasive problem. Additional reporting by Anna Cummins

"Crystal meth is an insidious drug. Ketamine is nothing compared to meth.” Author Paul Schulte is a part-time addictions counsellor at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital as well as other medical facilities across the city. And he’s one of the frontline witnesses to Hong Kong’s rapidly escalating problem with meth, a dangerously addictive yet easy to produce stimulant. “Crystal meth has an extremely expensive social and economic cost to society,” he continues. “The government should forget about ketamine and focus on meth.”

Crystal methamphetamine, often known as ‘ice’ in reference to its white, crystalline appearance, seems to be everywhere right now. The Customs and Excise Department,  together with the Police Force, dealt with 1,013 meth related cases in 2014 – that’s almost three per day. Meth arrests are now only second to ketamine. Last December, customs officers made their largest seizures of the drugs at Chek Lap Kok airport, uncovering 104kg of meth worth $42million on its way to Malaysia. Some 611kg of meth was seized in Hong Kong last year, a three fold increase from 2013. In the first four months of this year there were more police cases related to meth in the city than any other drug.

“It’s very easy to get ice in Hong Kong. I can be smoking in five minutes if I want,” one recovering addict, who asks to be referred to as D, tells us. “It’s so easy. I don’t think the government is aware of the problem because there are dealers everywhere. Everyone has two or three dealers.” D has been clean for the past month and is currently going through rehab. He’s been living in Hong Kong for the past six months and was previously working in Shanghai. “When I relocated to here, I thought Hong Kong would be the solution,” he says. “But I found out that the meth scene here isn’t on the same level. It’s even worse.”

It’s relatively easy to find meth in Hong Kong these days with the convenience of home delivery systems. That’s according to H, another recovering addict. “[The meth] would get delivered to my place by a lady and her three-year-old daughter. Her baby daughter gave me a bag of McDonald’s with the ice inside the burger. They were very paranoid that they might get caught. Sometimes we would go to 7-Eleven and her boyfriend would be there pouring hot water into a cup of noodles and he would give me an Octopus card with ice under it. It was madness.” H pauses. “I really thought my dealer was a close friend of mine,” he adds, shaking his head. “We’d talk about our lives and everything. I was wrong.”

H, who has just passed his 34th birthday, sunk deep into meth addiction after he broke up with his partner three years ago. Already prone to spells of alcoholism, H began to take ice every single day until he overdosed on April 7, 2015. “I was plopped on the floor in my own blood and pee until a friend found me and called 999. I was led out of my home handcuffed to a stretcher,” he recalls. “I had taken meth, metal cleaner and GHB [an anaesthetic often used as an illegal intoxicant]. It’s lucky I didn’t die. The overdose gave me a chance to address my addiction, so I’m really, really grateful for that.”

The upsurge in demand is, of course, linked tightly to supply. Much of the meth taken in Hong Kong is suspected of trickling down from the Mainland, which according to Schulte has now surpassed Mexico as the number one producer of methamphetamines. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that, out of the 326 drug labs raided by Chinese authorities in 2012, 228 were making methamphetamine. In January 2014, 2.9 tonnes of meth was seized from a secret lab in Lufeng, Guangdong  province (200km northeast from the Hong Kong border). And so far this year another 2.4 tonnes have been seized in the same city. It is estimated that about one third of China’s meth production comes from this region. Many of the precursor chemicals needed to make meth, such as the decongestant pseudoephedrine or methylamine are increasingly regulated in places like the US, Europe and parts of Asia. There are, however, still limited regulations when it comes to  China, making it a perfect hotbed for the large-scale production of meth in factories. Last year it was reported by local media that two notorious Hong Kong triad groups, the 14k and Sun Yee On, had allied with the Sinaloa Cartel – one of the most infamous Mexican drug gangs – to supply these precursor chemicals to the country, thereby fuelling the global meth industry.

A meth raid in Macau

A 35-page study released by the UN this May identifies Hong Kong and the Mainland as key players in a growing trade of illegal narcotics throughout the region. The report also shows that seizures of crystal meth across Asia have exploded fourfold from 11 tonnes in 2008, to 42 tonnes in 2013.

Hong Kong has a serious meth problem, and most academics and rehabilitation experts concur that it is heavily underreported. “The government wants to claim they have a victory, so they come up with the numbers to show that,” says Dave McGuire, a clinical supervisor at The Cabin – an addiction treatment and rehab centre that opened earlier this year in Central. It’s interesting to note that the Central Registry of Drug Abuse (CRDA) reports an overall drop of drug usage in Hong Kong over recent years. The narcotics division of the security bureau reports a humble year-on-year decline in arrests for ‘drug offences related to methamphetamines’, from 1,391 arrests in 2013 to 1,377 in 2014.

“The numbers in these reports are probably generated from mandated drug users and they make up, at best, one percent of the actual addicted population. That’s a slim sample size and you’re dealing with addicts, who are not known to be accurate reporters about their own drug use,” continues McGuire. “There are probably some politicians benefitting from these numbers.”

“[The official figures] just don’t seem to add up to what our clients are saying,” says Joanne Schmitt, head counsellor at The Cabin. “I question what the methodology is behind those reports and whether [the data] is statistically significant.”

“This official data represents a partial picture of the drug market. The actual extent of use is unknown as users do not necessarily come in to contact with reporting agencies,” says Professor Karen Joe Laidler, director of the Centre of Criminology at The University of Hong Kong. “If you account for ‘hidden use’ the actual number could be much higher.”

Ice is the purest and most addictive form of methamphetamine. It’s highly sought after for its addictive stimulant properties, which cause a huge rush of the ‘pleasure chemical’ dopamine into the brain. Ice releases three times more dopamine than cocaine and the effects can last from eight to 12 hours, compared to around two hours for cocaine. Crystal meth can either be snorted, smoked, mixed with soda or juice to be drank, swallowed in pill form or, for the quickest effect, injected. “Most users that I’ve observed in Hong Kong smoke it, while 25 percent inject it,” says D.

On top of its extreme effects, meth is relatively inexpensive, making it even more accessible to the public – especially for younger users. “The fastest growing population of meth users are young people,” says Prof Laidler. The market price for meth is a mere $430 per gram, which can last for two to three weeks. Cocaine costs $1,200 per gram, and that may only last for a few nights.”

“The cost of meth definitely makes it more desirable, but so does its availability,” says Dr Sky Lau of the Department of Sociology at HKU, who has researched the effects of drugs, including meth, on the local gay community. “The quality of ketamine and ecstasy has dropped in recent years, so in its place comes meth, which gives the user an incredible high. And the users getting into meth are getting younger and younger. The youngest I’ve come across is 17 years old.”

Unsurprisingly, the incredible high is followed by a disastrous down. This is one of several reasons that methamphetamines are classified as a dangerous Class A drug in Hong Kong. “After a high comes a ‘crash’, where the user experiences a physical and mental breakdown,” explains psychiatrist Dr Vanessa Wong, who has a decade of experience in the field. “The addict can sleep for several days, neglect to eat, drink or go to the bathroom. Over time this can lead to severe depression. Chronic abuse produces psychosis similar to the effects of schizophrenia, where the user suffers from hallucinations, causing picking of one’s skin until there are sores. The person becomes irrational, self-absorbed, agitated, and this can cause an obsessive grinding of the teeth (‘meth mouth’).” Long term physical effects include permanent damage to the heart, brain, liver, kidney and lungs, which increases the chance of heart attacks, strokes and, in some rare cases, causes Parkinson’s disease. The drug also has an infamous link to sex, as it causes a decrease in a user’s inhibition. This is also, however, linked to the contraction of HIV, hepatitis and many other STDs.

SEE ALSO: Why 'chem-fun' is rife among the gay male community in HK

“Meth is the most evil thing in the world,” declares H. “Once the disease has seeped in, there is no control. People are powerless. But we have control over our recovery, it’s up to us to stick with it and push on. One of the most difficult things is the stigma addicts have to deal with. Addiction is an illness that if left untreated will get worse.” Schulte agrees, “Addiction is seen as a moral failing in Hong Kong because of Chinese culture. It has to be treated as a disease. Punishing addicts and putting them in jail is a terrible idea. Hardcore traffickers need to go jail, not addicts. Jails are expensive and inmate costs are high. A very successful programme in America is called Court Diversion. You ask an offender, ‘do you want to go to jail for six months or go to 12-step meeting?’” 

So-called 12-step meetings are offered at The Cabin in combination with cognitive behavioural therapy. For severe cases, an inpatient programme, where addicts are sent to a facility where they can completely detox while airing out wounds with other recovering addicts. This is where H has opted for treatment. There are also some government-subvented facilities, such as the Sane Centre in Tsuen Wan, which provides treatment and therapy. “Drug addiction is a disease that’s prevalent but is being kept in the dark and shamed,” says Schmitt. “Getting that message out to addicts as well as family members themselves is important.”

If there’s one thing that everyone agrees on, it’s that urgent action is needed to curb the astronomical rise of meth usage and trafficking going on in Hong Kong. “We have to educate the public and the government and understand that the penal system is not going to work to help drug addicts,” says Schulte. “We need aggressive campaigning, accessible and affordable treatment and a free, clean needle exchange programme to curb the rise of HIV. Right now we have none of that. We are at ground zero.”  

Find out more about HK’s drug policies and treatment centres on the Narcotics Division’s website, nd.gov.hk

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