Drug-Related Social Media Posts in Hong Kong Increase Threefold Since 2016

As the United States presses on in its legal cannabis ventures, Hong Kong reckons with their own trials surrounding drug use.
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Research by Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that social media content in the city featuring drugs saw over a threefold increase, from 927 in 2016 to 3,114 by the end of last year, first reported by RTHK News. The survey also takes aim at cannabidiol (CBD), as authorities consider a ban on the up-and-coming cannabinoid.

The study, released last week, also found an increase in video views in the same period for drug-related content, from about 3.4 million to 7.6 million.

Additionally, researchers noted that social media users posted a variety of content over the period, including popular memes, hashtags and non-fungible-tokens (NFTs) to promote drug use. NFTs have grown in popularity over the years as a unique digital asset, often taking the form of art, that can’t be copied.

“We found some NFT in the high-risk websites,” said Michael Leung, who works for the group’s youth crime prevention center. Leung added that high-risk users utilizing memes, hashtags, cartoon characters and NFTs to promote drugs “causes some users to underestimate the risks and severity of drug abuse problem.”

The group also polled around 1,300 younger adults, from November 2021 to July 2022, and found that 20% “underestimated the harm of drugs.” Specifically, more than one-fifth of respondents believed they were able to control “any cravings” for drugs. About 18% of interviewees also said they felt taking drugs could relieve anxiety.

The study also found that more than half of all drug-related posts originated on a platform, similar to Reddit, called LIHKG, followed by Instagram and HKGolden online forum. Half of all content logged by the study reference cannabis, while cocaine and methamphetamine were featured in 11.6% and 8.4% of posts, respectively.

Leung attributed some of the more recent interest around drugs to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many residents were confined to their homes and used social media more often since 2020.

CBD is among the specific drugs seeing an increase in traffic over this time period, too, with the number of related views increasing from 5,707 in 2019 to 11,840 in 2020 and 43,980 in 2021. Bob Lee Siu-chui, a supervisor of the federation’s youth crime prevention center, said that CBD in particular has been advertised as a stress-relief and healthcare product “for enticement, lowering the wariness among young people,” South China Morning Post reports.

CBD is legal in Hong Kong, so long as it doesn’t contain THC.

“Some products may contain THC, an easily addictive substance that is regulated by the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance,” Lee said. Lee also expressed concern that CBD could become a gateway for young people to start using and selling other drugs.

In turn, the city’s law enforcement agencies are currently pushing to outlaw CBD within the year, stressing the illegal status of cannabis in an attempt to dissuade residents from trying out the non-psychoactive cannabinoid.

“There is a trend in Hong Kong that some online users discuss CBD,” Leung said, adding that “many people” have underestimated the risks of CBD and the severity of damages cannabis can cause.

A spokesperson told South China Morning Post that the government would seek to ban CBD products in early 2023.

“The government has taken a firm stance against cannabis and repeatedly stated that the use, cultivation, manufacturing, trafficking…of cannabis and controlled cannabis products are illegal and will remain so,” he said. “We will continue to educate the public, especially young people, to correctly understand that cannabis is a drug and it is harmful to health.”

The 2016 Brookings Institution report, “A People’s War: China’s Struggle to Contain its Illicit Drug Problem,” notes that China has faced a growing problem of illicit drug use. The amount of registered drug addicts increased every year until publication since the government’s first annual drug enforcement report in 1998. This problem is arguably compounded by the fact that drug addiction is considered a personal failure and is highly stigmatized, with drug addiction not receiving much public sympathy or government funding in the country.

“There are two main strategies for treating addiction in China: (1) enrollment in compulsory detoxification centers, and (2) sentencing to ‘education through labor’ camps,” the report reads.

The authors, San Diego State University sociology professor Sheldon X. Zhang and Rutgers University criminal justice professor Ko-lin Chin, instead recommended that China apply a public health approach to the treatment of addicts. Additionally, they recommend China promote evidence-based treatment programs, based on scientific research; establish a reliable drug market forecast system, combining chemical composition analysis, reports and urine tests of arrested drug offenders and community informants on illicit drug use trends; and increase the efficiency of its international collaboration.

“While not a silver bullet, perhaps China … should also consider experimenting with a more compassionate approach oriented toward harm reduction,” the authors concluded.

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