HONG KONG, June 2013 – Hidden away from the prying eyes of crowded Hong Kong, in school toilets, karaoke bars and public parks, young people are snorting a powerful and addictive drug ketamine.
Cheap and abundant, with a supply flooding across the border from the mainland, abuse reached such levels in the late 2000s that the city was dubbed the ketamine capital of the world.
But in recent years Hong Kong has fought back, campaigning against what is a psychologically addictive drug that can cause irreversible health problems and take longer to treat than heroin.
On an isolated, jungled island, far from the city’s gleaming skyline, a group of young men are working bare-chested under the sun, painting the outside wall of a building.
This is the Shek Kwu Chau residential treatment centre, and these are some of its “clients”, ketamine abusers who come from mostly middle-class homes, with an average age of around 25.
Kin, now 27, arrived here after a 10-year habit that saw him go from user to dealer. He told AFP he only tried the drug in the first place to show his friend he didn’t need it.
“There’s not a physical addiction, but they are very much psychologically addicted, They want to taste the excitement, it’s always on their mind.”
“I didn’t realise it had such an attraction. I felt so weightless and free after taking it. I was in love with this feeling and got addicted to it,” he said.
Ketamine, which is closely related to PCP or “angel dust”, is used as an anaesthetic on both humans and animals.
The drug, often synthesised in clandestine laboratories in mainland China, can render users immobile. But it also makes them feel relaxed and floaty, and can produce a hallucinatory out-of-body experience known as the “K-hole”.
The centre’s superintendent Patrick Wu said ketamine’s psychological pull meant the rehabilitation programme, which includes counselling and vocational work, lasted at least six months, compared to just two months for heroin.
“Yes, there’s not a physical addiction, but they are very much psychologically addicted,” he said. “They want to taste the excitement, it’s always on their mind.”
The government-funded centre is run by SARDA (Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers), and is both free and voluntary.