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Police check and sort out the confiscated bags of hydroxylimine hydrochloride, a raw materials for the Ketamine, June 25, 2010/XINHUA

Focus on China

Hong Kong battles to kick the ketamine habit

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It mostly caters to heroin addicts but in 2010 it opened up to ketamine abusers after a sharp rise in cases. The young men live together as a “family” in simple stone houses overlooking the sea, 16 narrow bunks in a room.

In 2009 ketamine abuse peaked at 5,280 reported users, according to statistics from Hong Kong’s central registry of drug abuse. More than half of those were under 21, an age group in which among reported drug users, 84 percent took ketamine.

By last year the number had fallen to 3,192, though drug workers warn its use is easily hidden, and often takes a long time to surface.

Narcotics Commissioner Erika Hui put the success of reducing ketamine down to a “holistic” five-pronged approach involving law enforcement, education, treatment, research and cross-border cooperation.

“Our focus has been to encourage people to seek help early rather than hiding. The first priority will be to assist rather than to catch or prosecute people for taking drugs,” she said.

The success of this strategy could point the way for other countries with ketamine problems, like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, though it would “depend on the local circumstances”, Hui said.

Criminologist Dr Alfred Mak of Hong Kong University said one reason locals were drawn to ketamine was because it was so cheap, costing around HK$100 ($13) for a small bag that could be shared amongst friends a fraction of the price of cocaine.

But he also said the drug was “particularly suited” to the environment.

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“We live in a very narrow space and we have a lot of interference, even from our neighbours, but people can take this drug in a hidden and secluded place,” he said.

Ah-Wai started snorting ketamine in the top floor toilets of his school when he was just 16.

“You can take it any time, any place, and people won’t know what you are doing,” he told AFP.

He found the buzz of confidence hard to resist, but over time he was also struggling to concentrate, found it hard to explain his bleary appearance, fought with classmates and was eventually expelled.

He also became unable to hold his bladder for more than 15 minutes, afraid to use the bus in case he wet himself. One day he fell unconscious in the street, waking up three days later in hospital.

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