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Drug Abuse

Taiwanese Youth Withering on the Vine


The use of Ecstasy, ketamine and various other mind-altering drugs is spreading like wildfire among Taiwan's young people. What causes kids to go astray, and what can be done to help them?



Taiwanese Youth Withering on the Vine

By Alice Ting
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 405 )

Wenli (a pseudonym) had just turned 18 when she made a date to go dancing at a local nightspot with a friend she met on the Internet. Little did she know, she was embarking on what was to become a long nightmare.

A music lover, Wenli seemed to have met her soul mate through a social networking website. A month later, the two arranged to meet.

Upon entering a dance club her newfound Internet friend knew, Wenli encountered a guy peddling some brightly colored pills, whereupon her new friend turned his head and asked if she wanted to buy some. A group of kids began pressing in, exhorting the two: "Yeah, c'mon man, give it a try; it's a real high! I guarantee you'll be fine, no worries!" Her curiosity piqued and under a continuing barrage of peer pressure, Wenli relented, nodding in agreement that she'd try the pills.

Amid the excitement of earsplitting electronic music and dazzling lights, the drug began to take effect and Wenli was soon in a euphoric state of heightened emotions. As her eyes glazed over "something seemed to be floating off in space, and I kept trying to reach out and grab it." Her sense of touch and other senses became acutely keen, and she began wildly shaking her head and body in time with the intensely throbbing beat of the music.

Among young people, this phenomenon has come to be commonly referred to as falling into the "K-hole," a reference to a phase one enters after taking such drugs in which the user feels they are standing at the brink of death, a kind of out of body experience imparting a sensation of lightness and floating.

To recapture that deep, trancelike euphoria, Wenli embraced with gusto the crazy rock-and-roll nightlife, frequently dancing the night away with wild abandon till the sun came up.

The Trap of Making Friends Online

Wenli's story is a reflection of much of Taiwan's current Generation E youth, fervently surfing the Internet making supposed "friends." Statistics compiled by the Jinghua Cultural and Educational Foundation, a social services group involved in juvenile crime prevention and anti-drug education, indicate that among youths seeking drug rehabilitation and counseling over the past three, nearly 60 percent claim that they were first introduced to illegal drug use by friends they met on the Internet.

Statistics from the National Police Administration seem to reinforce the view that the Internet has become a hotbed of illegal drug activity. In 2007 alone, online criminal activity rose 40 percent over the previous year. One can find information about how and where to buy drugs all over the Internet and those youths who let their guard down for just a moment can find themselves falling into this trap.

During the succeeding six months of her initial encounter with illegal drugs, Wenli lost 12 kilos, making her already slender build even more frail. She gradually began to realize that her short-term memory was being seriously affected – she was forgetting things she had said just seconds before.

Despite that, she never regarded herself as having a problem with drug addiction, except that when nighttime rolled around she would get an insatiable urge "to go looking for that feeling again," she says.

This went on until one night a young friend of hers collapsed and died at a local KTV from an overdose of Ecstasy and ketamine, making for lurid front-page headlines the following day. Only then did she suffer a complete emotional breakdown and begin to reconsider her actions.

The Allure of Dope is Never Far

Falling street prices for new designer drugs like ketamine and Ecstasy in recent years, where doses can now be had for anywhere from less than NT$100 to just a couple of hundred NT dollars, an increasing number of young new users are being tempted to try them, and such drugs have gradually become a kind of "atmosphere enhancer" used at dance clubs, KTVs and other nighttime entertainment spots.

Furthermore, under existing laws, offenses involving "Schedule 3" controlled drugs, seen as relatively less harmful to society, are not entered into the offender's criminal record. Many young people thus do not understand just how potentially physically harmful these new designer drugs can be. Consequently, they maintain an attitude that such drugs are just good, clean fun, and instead of rejecting the dope peddlers' enticements, they even actively court them and encourage friends to try them. Yet they do not realize that these new drugs can harm their bodies, and at high dosages can even suppress breathing, leading to death.

Thus, contact with Schedule 3 drugs has continued to expand among Taiwanese youth like ripples in a pond. Ministry of Education statistics reveal that in a short span of four years, the number of underage students taking ketamine has increased five-fold, and the age of consumers has dropped to include grade school students.

In July of this year, officers from Taipei's Daan Police District were dumbfounded when they broke up a drug gang and arrested 15 suspects, 10 of whom they later found to be students.

Not Only ‘Bad Kids' Do Drugs

In an era of social liberalization with electronic media continuously peddling erroneous but seemingly factual reports, parents are faced with an increasingly daunting task in raising their kids. The protective climate of the past is not what it once was, and for adolescents, illegal drugs are never far away.

Professor W.J. Chen, chairman of National Taiwan University's Department of Public Health, conducted a three-year survey of youth drug addiction from 2004 to 2007, and found that students with spotty school attendance records are the most at-risk group for illegal drug use.

"Skipping class one day increases the risk of drug use by 50 percent, skipping two days raises the risk 1.2 times, and with more than three days, the risk increases five-fold," Chen says. "The risk here is even more evident than with other common fixed risk factors."

It's not just "bad kids" who are doing drugs; those youths whose lives are lacking in proper supervision can easily lose their way, Chen says adamantly.

At particular risk are kids aged 14- to 20 years old, the adolescent years, which are also the crucial period during which kids may become involved with drugs.

During this period young people are on the one hand yearning to assert their freedom and independence, yet on the other, their brains are not quite fully physically and emotionally mature, and they are often not quite able to make appropriate judgments. With heightened emotional needs for acceptance by their peer group and in a state of relaxed vigilance, kids can easily go astray.

Additionally, parents today are often overly permissive and indulgent of their children, overlooking the importance of family education, potentially further contributing to the corrupting influence of drugs.

"With the juvenilization of our society, parents have become overly adoring of their children, yet kids' ability to resist outside pressures has been reduced – they want to turn and flee upon encountering setbacks – consequently providing a golden opportunity for illegal drugs to enter the picture," says 10-year youth counseling veteran Rev. Andrew Shen, director of the Operation Dawn Disciple Training Center.

Mingde (a pseudonym) is a pale, frail kid with the look of a poet who resides at Operation Dawn's Yonghe Rehab Center. Now almost 20, he attends remedial classes nightly at a local junior high. An only child, Mingde was often home alone while his parents ran the family business. It wasn't until Mingde was arrested that his parents discovered to their horror that Mingde had been spending the tens of thousands of NT dollars they had been giving him each month on dope.

According to a Ministry of Justice study of local drug abuse spanning 20 years, young people account for the lion's share of drug abusers and first arrestees. Those arrested for a first offense between the ages of 20 and 29 years old account for half of the total first arrests – nearly 120,000 people, or more than 30,000 greater than the entire population of Penghu County.

Now a volunteer at a detox center, Jianwen (a pseudonym) sports the coolly stylish look of pop singer Jay Chou. A smart kid who disdained study, he became unable to stomach the relentless pressure for academic achievement during his second year in junior high, and began hanging out with other like-minded kids, skipping class, smoking cigarettes and eventually falling into drug abuse. Just 20 years old, he's been in and out of jail three times now for a variety of crimes including extortion and robbery.

"If I could turn back time, I would definitely choose to focus on schoolwork, take the university entrance exam and make something of myself," he says ruefully. "I know I'm not some kind of illiterate."

But no one can turn back the clock, and all he can do now is try to make amends for past mistakes.

Drug addiction is like a poppy flower, beautiful and attractive on the outside but in the end producing disastrous results. With illegal drugs hitting the Internet and their use becoming ever more widespread, more and more Taiwanese boys and girls will fall under the spell of this alluring poppy. One can't help but agonize over the promise of all those young lives that will be withered before their time.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 早凋的青春