A 16-year-old Hong Kong boy makes two phone calls for delivery: one for pizza, the other for the drug ketamine. Two teenage girls are found semi-conscious in a car park in the southern Chinese enclave after overdosing on ketamine. A 13-year-old boy joins a gang and is given free ketamine.
These are anecdotes told to CNN by police, a family doctor and the former gang member. Ketamine has become the top drug of choice among young people as the number of people under 21 taking drugs has surged 57 percent in the last four years in Hong Kong, said Commissioner for Narcotics, Sally Wong.
"We started off with a very small number of young people taking drugs. We are now more worried about the trend," Wong said. "We don't want a runaway trend, that's why we are stepping up action."
Ketamine, an animal tranquilizer, puts youth in a dazed stupor for about two hours.
An oversupply of the drug in Hong Kong and the fact that it is cheaper than other narcotics makes ketamine popular with young people, said Superintendent Wilson Fok of the Hong Kong Police Narcotics Bureau.
One gram of ketamine sells on the street here for $13 and is enough to be shared with two other people, while cocaine, for example, sells for $103 a gram, Fok said.
The drug is trafficked into Hong Kong from other parts of Asia, such as India and mainland China, Fok said.
Police have recently stepped up their efforts to crack down on drug use at clubs and bars in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a city in mainland China just across the border. Nearly 120 alleged drug users from Hong Kong, mostly under the age of 30, were arrested at entertainment venues in Shenzhen in July and held for 15 days in sweeps that made headlines for days here, according to the South China Morning Post.
However, narcotics police have detected a trend away from entertainment venues.
"Forty percent of young people abuse drugs in public toilets and playgrounds. That's what our recent data from last year shows," Fok said. "They want to find some other places to take drugs."
The problem has gotten so bad that authorities have decided to do something never done here before: random school drug tests.
Beginning in September, some two dozen schools will conduct tests. Officials say the drug screening will most likely be in the form of urine tests, though they are still working out the details. Ketamine can be detected in urine for at least three days.
Alman Chan, principal of Hong Kong's only drug rehab center for youth, the privately-run Christian Zheng Sheng School, said it was clear more young people were taking drugs.
"Just look at our school development. I was here 14 years ago. At that time, I was the only teacher. I had 18 kids. I only had one student who was 15," he said. "But now, I have one third -- about 40 of them -- who are 15 years old or younger. That shows you the number of students getting into drugs is bigger and also getting younger and younger."
There were a few reasons why children were getting involved with drugs, such as troubled homes and difficulties at school, he said.
"People are more concerned about material things and they are getting lost," he added.
Hong Kong Police have arrested kids as young as age 10 for serious drug offenses.
Police said last week they had busted a network that allegedly recruited teenagers to sell illegal drugs, and one of those arrested -- a 14-year-old school dropout -- was found with 28 grams of ketamine, according to the South China Morning Post.
Dr. Cheng Chi Man, a family practice doctor, runs a seminar that trains doctors to detect the signs of drug abuse in young patients: drowsiness, skin problems, frequent urination (ketamine can affect bladder function) and frequent sick leave.
"When we were 10 years old, we were still in primary school watching TV and eating candy. But they are now taking drugs."
Tai Ming Hung said she learned her son Keith was using ketamine after he had been treated at a hospital for taking it at a karaoke bar.
"I was in denial. I just didn't believe it was true. When I first heard about it, we all didn't know how to react, because we hadn't heard of those drugs before," she said. "I didn't really understand why we have these harmful drugs in the world. And I was so afraid that it would kill my son."
Keith, who said he began using ketamine at the age of 13 when he joined a gang, has recovered and is now living at Alman's school.
"I have a feeling that he's really growing up, he keeps improving," Tai Ming Hung said.
Ketamine abuse is not limited to young people -- it is the second most popular drug among all age groups in Hong Kong, Fok said.
A 24-year-old man in Hong Kong was just convicted of killing a girl, whose dismembered remains were found by authorities. His lawyer said he was high on ketamine and Ecstasy, and did not know how the girl had died.
For the worst young offenders in Hong Kong, the court ships them off to Chan's school in a remote part of Lantau Island. The closest road is a three-hour hike through the woods.
Chan calls the school "the last stop before jail" for drug abusers.
CNN visited the campus on an old pig farm, where 99 boys and 24 girls live. Their curriculum involves regular school subjects and chores. The goal is for each student to finish their court probation and either sit the university exam or continue on to a vocational school.
Many of the students have become interested in video editing and photography. There is a video lab on campus and the students showed CNN some video projects they have done for clients.
Other students run a pizza parlor and tea shop on a neighboring island.
The average stay is three years and students are encouraged to plan for life after rehab.
"We have vocational training. We help them get some marketable skills; therefore, they may get a job or continue training afterward," Chan said. "I believe everyone deserves a second chance."
By Pauline Chiou
August 1, 2009
Hong Kong youth caught in wave of ketamine addiction