SCMP Tuesday, August 22, 2000


Rave dangers

According to Customs and Excise figures, drug abuse in Hong Kong has dropped by 20 per cent since 1994, and there has been a substantial drop in the number of drug abusers under 21. That may sound like heartening news, but it is not quite the full story.

As rave parties spread, more teenagers are experimenting with the new brand of mood enhancers like Ecstasy and ketamine - the so called "hug drugs" or "disco biscuits" which give feelings of euphoria and energy, and are not considered addictive. They do, however, present serious hazards of a different kind, including their increasing use as "date-rape" drugs.

And when children as young as 12 are reportedly attracted to the rave culture, the situation is obviously one which needs to be watched closely. Simply clamping down on rave parties is obviously not the answer. Driving them underground would only increase their attraction.

So the Narcotics Division of the Security Bureau is taking the right approach in putting most responsibility for keeping the parties drug and crime-free on to the shoulders of rave organisers. Whoever undertakes the task will find it is not an easy one to achieve - soft drugs and raves are virtually synonymous, and the reason why they are so well attended.

Because these substances are not addictive in the same sense as hard drugs, they are widely believed to be harmless. Evidence to that effect when a trafficker sought - and got - a cut in a 12-year sentence led to a 1998 Court of Appeal ruling that Ecstasy is not a threat to society. The sentence was reduced to seven years, and now traffickers caught with less than 25 grams can walk away without spending a day in prison. The sentence for trafficking between 25 and 400 grams is up to four years' jail.

But the latest research indicates Ecstasy may cause permanent brain damage. First used for psychiatric treatment in the 1970s, it soon became a recreational drug. Although many deaths have been associated with its use in the West, these usually occur when taken with other drugs or alcohol. A study at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, found recently that regular use can cause serious depletion of an important brain chemical.

The newest arrival, ketamine, will be added to the list of dangerous substances at the end of the year. It is an animal tranquilliser that induces temporary paralysis and "out of body" feelings. Its permanent effects are not yet known, but enough is emerging from new drug research to make better education a matter of urgency.

Like health warnings on cigarette packets, such efforts may not influence all young people. But at least they will know more about the risks they are taking.