HONG KONG—While most 12-year-olds might still be begging their parents to buy them sweets and toys, Choi Ting Yuk was already trying ketamine, ecstasy, and marijuana.
Obtaining them was easy, said Choi, now 16.
"I used to play outside and I met people who gave me them," Choi said.
"As a girl you don't need to pay for them. The boys just share them with you."
Choi was just one of a rising number of Hong Kong youths who get caught up in drug abuse.
Official statistics suggest that people who take ketamine and other drugs are starting younger too.
The latest Hong Kong government statistics show a surge in recent years in the number of young drug abusers under 21.
In 2007, there were 2,999 reported cases—a jump of 37 percent from 2,186 in 2004.
Government statistics also suggest that the proportion of drug users under 21 has risen from 51 percent in the first half of 2007 to 54.8 percent in the same period in 2009.
In Hong Kong, the tranquilizer ketamine has already surpassed ecstasy as the most popular drug for youngsters.
Of all reported first-time drug users under the age of 21 last year, 83 percent were using ketamine, compared with 73.7 percent in 2007.
Addicts getting younger
In 2000, ketamine, which is commonly used as an animal tranquilizer by veterinarians, became regulated under Schedule 1 of Hong Kong's Chapter 134 Dangerous Drugs Ordinance.
It can be used legally only by health professionals, for university research purposes, or with a physician's prescription.
Usually snorted as a powder by recreational users, ketamine can cause perceptual changes or hallucinations as well as giving the user a floating feeling as if the mind and body have been separated.
Frequent ketamine use is associated with impairments in long-term memory, cognitive difficulties, and deficiency in motor coordination.
It also leads to renal failure, reduced bladder volume, incontinence, and discomfort in passing urine.
But these side-effects were the last things on Choi and her friends' minds when they went out to have fun.
"Just snorting a bit of it makes you feel giggly and you let yourself go more," said Choi, who has since been ordered by the court to enter the Christian Zheng Sheng College, a rehabilitation school for young addicts.
Alman Chan, head of the college, said the average age of young addicts who are admitted into his school is getting younger, falling from 18 in 1995 to 16.5 this year.
The youngest age of first contact with drugs amongst his current students is 8.
With more parents working long hours and children often left on their own, some prefer spending time with their peers than talking with their parents, Chan said.
Family neglect, along with an increasingly materialistic society that stresses instant gratification and quick returns, contribute towards a loss of values among young people, he said.
According to the latest available information in the government's Central Registry of Drug Abuse, the three most common reasons for newly reported drug users in 2007 were peer influence (49.7 percent), curiosity (46.5 percent), and boredom (37.2 percent.)
Easy as ordering a pizza
A teacher at the school said youngsters regard ketamine as an attractive choice because it is affordable, easy to use, and can make them feel euphoric in a short time.
"A lot of kids go for instant gratification. They have no direction in life and they don't want to do anything," the teacher, surnamed Cheung, said.
Obtaining the drug is often as easy as ordering a pizza—place a phone order and it will be delivered to your door, said social worker May Cho at the Hong Kong Society of Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers.
Others, like Choi, obtain ketamine from people who hang around playgrounds and schools.
"Many young people do not know how to deal with their problems and as they get no support from the family they choose to use drugs as a means of escape," Cho said.
Many young addicts prefer taking drugs just across the border in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which neighbors Hong Kong.
Hong Kong government statistics showed that 18.2 percent of reported drug abusers aged under 21 took drugs in mainland China in 2007. There were 25 percent in 2006.
Choi said taking drugs in China gave her a sense of freedom, thanks to less frequent police crackdowns and the distance from her parents.
Two to three times a week, she and her friends went to the border—just a few bus stops from her home in northern Hong Kong—to Shenzhen for drug parties.
"Hong Kong discos are often raided [by police], but in China that hardly ever happens, so we went to Shenzhen quite a lot," she said.
Choi said ketamine, known here simply as "K," and other recreational drugs cost a fraction of the Hong Kong price and so they are affordable for teenagers.
Choi used to spend all of her part-time work salary on drugs.
Police said much of the ketamine available in Hong Kong is believed to originate in China, although there are no available official figures.
Police told RFA in a statement that drug syndicates often use the land boundary with mainland China as a route for smuggling illicit drugs into Hong Kong.
These syndicates often use couriers or vehicles to frequently bring in small quantities of drugs to avoid detection.
Hong Kong police said they sometimes carry out joint operations with Chinese police to crack down on drugs.
In a high-profile joint anti-drug campaign in July, 119 Hong Kong residents were arrested in Shenzhen and detained for 15 days, in addition to being barred from entering China for three years.
An expert at an adolescent drug clinic in China who requested anonymity told RFA that the abuse of psychotropic drugs is also becoming more widespread in Chinese cities—mainly those in Guangdong neighboring Hong Kong.
But because the practice is a reasonably new phenomenon, the expert said, there are few statistics made publicly available.
According to the official Web site of the Beijing Narcotics Control Commission, 47.8 percent of new drug users are using "new" drugs including "ice" and ketamine, and the majority of drug abusers are aged 35 and under.
More detailed information is unavailable, although Chinese media reports have called on the government to be more transparent on drug abuse figures.
The expert said family tension and domestic violence amid a loss of traditional values in a fast-changing society have driven many Chinese teenagers to abuse drugs, but sadly there are still relatively few studies on the issue and little help available.
"Many people are aware that 'traditional' drugs (heroine, cocaine, etc.) are bad for you, but there is little understanding about the bad effects of these newly emerged drugs, so teenagers are willing to try them," he said.
"If we don't make efforts to control the problem there will be grave social consequences."
Original reporting by Katherine Lee. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.