HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Ng Ka-chun was 13 when friends in Hong Kong introduced him to marijuana, psychotropic drugs and then ecstasy. But his world changed a year later, after he was sent to a school and drug rehabilitation center.
"I remember thinking it (marijuana) wasn't any different from a cigarette and then I tried ecstasy and ketamine. It was the same logic, they were quite the same as marijuana, they seemed less serious than heroin," said Ng, who was caught stealing.
Apart from learning to play the piano and guitar at the Christian Zheng Sheng College, he is now adept at handling audio-visual equipment and hopes to finish secondary school.
"I will be here for another two years to finish my secondary school and serve the rest of my probation ... I will study as much as I can, I want to be a trainer, outward bound teacher."
The use of psychotropic drugs has soared in Hong Kong in recent years with social workers and academics encountering addicts as young as nine years of age.
The spartan Zheng Sheng College stands alone on a small hilly island in Hong Kong. There are only eight toilets for its 120 students and a small shed serves as a canteen, classroom and study area at different times of the day.
Its principal Alman Chan, who is fighting to get a bigger premise for his students, believes that education is the only way to get young people back on track.
"We have so many young people involved in drugs in Hong Kong. They have to be educated ... schooling gives them a chance at life, empowering them, reconnecting them with society. Schooling creates a new status, they are students, not inmates," Chan said.
Some of Chan's students get to finish secondary school and some obtain accountancy qualifications, which means they can find jobs afterwards.
There were 8,306 reported psychotropic drug users in 2008 in Hong Kong, up from 6,335 in 2005. Most of them primarily abuse ketamine, an animal tranquilizer that is produced illegally in China and Hong Kong.
The social problem gained prominence in recent weeks after groups of students were found dazed and unconscious at beaches and in parks. According to local newspapers, 20 percent of Hong Kong's more than 500 secondary schools had sought help on how to manage students with drug problems.
Experts have offered a host of reasons to explain Hong Kong's worsening drug addiction problem, from their easy availability to aimlessness among the young and peer pressure.
"My schoolmates gave it (ketamine) to me. I did it to socialise with my friends," said Kwan Wang-yuen, who had his first encounter with drugs when he was just 12.
Now a student at Zheng Sheng, 14-year-old Kwan hopes to finish school and take up a pastoral vocation later on.
Chan says drug addicts tend not to have a purpose in life, and narcotics serve as a convenient buffer.
"Before, people just wanted to get rich. Now, they hide in their homes, they don't need to go out, they order a pizza and mom pays for it. They have no direction ... and drugs help them define their meaning in life," he said.
"My student says to me he can't quit because if he does, his mind will clear up and he will be in good shape to face his problems and his problems will come back."
But this can change with education, Chan says.
"The 'student' status by itself is social capital. It gives them so much more to work for. That is so important for young people," Chan said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy