On April 13, Hong Kong police seized 580 kilograms of suspected cannabis buds in a shipping container from Canada at the Kwai Chung Container Terminal. The amount of cannabis buds seized by police at this time is the largest ever, with an estimated market value of over HK$100 million ($12.9 million).
Supplies mirror the demand. Increasing amounts of cannabis seized by Hong Kong police seems in line with the phenomenon of spreading cannabis use among Hong Kong young people. According to data from the Central Registry of Drug Abuse, cannabis is the most popular psychotropic substance among drug users aged below 21, with 228 cases reported in 2019, while the number of its users jumped by 48 percent, from 154 cases recorded in 2018.
In August, police seized two bows, six arrows, a suspected gasoline bomb, materials for making gasoline bombs, and oil containing cannabis derivatives in an apartment at the Haribest Industrial Building. Eight young protesters were also arrested at the scene. In November, a video showing a Hong Kong student using cannabis in a restroom before he went to a protest was widely spread online.
In the first season of 2020, even during the pandemic, some Hong Kong youth aged below 21 continued to become involved in drug-related offenses.
According to a report of Chung Wing-man, the top investigator of the Narcotics Bureau, police arrested 37 young people (about 14 percent of total arrests) in March for drug-related offenses.
As more countries legalize cannabis for medical or recreational use, occasional use of cannabis has seemingly developed into a justified trend. Although cannabis is not as addictive as traditional hard drugs, "cannabis could be the entry point to stronger drugs when one feels that it cannot satisfy his or her own addictions," argues Sam Cheng Chun-wah, 62, a recovered addict who has become a pastor. Cheng is running a non-government organization to help drug addicts.
Instead of using illicit drugs in domestic settings in Hong Kong, during the first decade of the 21st century, going north for drugs (mainly heroin) and sexual pleasure became quite popular among Hong Kong young people.
The mainland was perceived to be an amazing place that offered exciting night entertainment, as well as high-quality but cheaper and easily accessible drugs.
During those years on the mainland, police rarely targeted pubs or discos in anti-drug raids. At the time, this issue was considered a serious social problem in Hong Kong, with the public calling for immediate action to prevent cross-border drug use. What happened after this?
Supported by the Beat Drugs Fund in Hong Kong, our research team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has conducted both in-depth interviews and large-scale surveys on monitoring recent changes in cross-border drug use between Hong Kong and the mainland in the past three years.
Three major observations have been made from this research. Firstly, in contrast to the last decade, the number of young cross-boundary drug users has been decreasing due to the effective drug deterrence and prevention policies enforced in both Hong Kong and the mainland after 2008.
Collaborating with local NGOs, Hong Kong police established a large-scale educational project titled "Operation Edgeteller". This project annually surveyed and delivered useful drug-related knowledge to approximately 20,000 young travelers across the border. Having realized its success in preventing youth drug use, the Hong Kong police halted this project in 2014.
The mainland police also stepped up their random raids of entertainment facilities such as karaoke bars and pubs; compulsory urine tests have been conducted indiscriminately in these entertainment facilities, regardless of the suspects' residential status. Moreover, according to Narcotics Control Law, the mainland police will take drug users to compulsory drug rehabilitation institutions for one to two years after the drug users have been arrested three times. Such penalties has been the greatest deterrent to Hong Kong youth.
Secondly, middle-aged to elderly Hong Kong people continue to seek drugs by going north. One possible reason is that older drug users - involved in the cross-border drug epidemic in the early 2000s - have maintained their social ties and drug networks in Guangdong province. This group has largely fallen off the radar of local NGOs and law enforcement.
Thirdly, following global trends, a normalization of recreational drug use among Hong Kong youth is occurring due to the knowledge of sensible drug use becoming commonplace. With the expansion of the international drug business, affordable psychotropic drugs have become easily accessible in the local market. The perception of using soft drugs like cannabis for recreational purposes (plus purposes like reducing strain or increasing energy or concentration) at homes or upstairs bars among Hong Kong young people has become the norm.
Due to the strong anti-drug cultural tradition, cannabis and other types of drug use will continually be legally banned in Hong Kong and the mainland. Besides strengthening law enforcement to reduce cross-border drug use among Hong Kong adults, policymakers should recognize the hybrid patterns of cross-border risky behavior. Cross-border drug users may experience other health-related risky behavior beyond drug use, such as unprotected sex and binge drinking. Thus, healthy lifestyles should be promoted more among middle-aged and elderly Hong Kong people. The exchange of information is also crucial. Once mainland police arrest a Hong Kong drug user for criminal offenses, they will report his or her identity to the Hong Kong police. However, mainland police rarely employ such protocols when handling Hong Kong drug users because illicit drug use on the mainland is considered a violation of administrative laws instead of criminal laws. If the drug users' identities can be made known as in the case of criminal offenders, the Hong Kong police can then inform relevant Hong Kong NGOs to follow up on those arrests to offer corresponding help.
Finally, policymakers should note the localization of drug use among Hong Kong youth and learn lessons from experiences in developed countries. In particular, Hong Kong law enforcement and social workers ought to pay more attention to the rising invisibility of young drug users as they are more likely to use drugs in domestic or highly private settings. New types of educational programs must be devised to raise the awareness of the chronic harm from using cannabis and other soft drugs.
The authors are with the Chinese Law Program at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.