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Hong Kong Lacking Secular Drug Rehabilitation Services

The dominance of Christian-based drug rehabilitation services in Hong Kong has created significant barriers for those seeking treatment.

State-run in-patient drug rehabilitation services in Hong Kong are reserved for people who are mandated to attend them by court after being convicted of a crime. Members of the wider public who seek such services but cannot afford private treatment must attend programmes that are run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

There are around 8,600 people in Hong Kong with problematic drug use according to government figures, however, front-line drug counsellors claim that the true number is significantly higher.

Among the 15 NGOs that provide in-patient rehabilitation services in Hong Kong, 13 are run by Christian organisations. Among these, 12 explicitly require religious activity as part of the “treatment” that they offer.

This dearth of secular rehabilitation services is problematic for several reasons.

Only around 10 per cent of the city’s population is Christian; most people are irreligious, Buddhist, or followers of Chinese folk religion. People unaffiliated with Christianity can be reluctant to pursue available treatment – particularly individuals from Hong Kong’s growing South Asian communities, most of whom are Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu.

For the non-Christians who do choose to enter the NGOs’ programmes, the effectiveness of the “treatment” that they experience may be compromised when commitment to the Christian faith is part of the rehabilitation process.

For example, the South China Morning Post reported that a young non-Christian Nepalese man, Thapa, hoped to find treatment for his heroin dependency after he moved to Hong Kong. The newspaper reports that he was unable to find successful treatment, despite attending two different programmes; “It’s very difficult for us [ethnic minorities] because the religion cannot work”, he explained.

The St. Stephen’s Society, a Christian NGO, is one of the most well-known groups for providing in-patient drug rehabilitation services in Hong Kong. It aims to help people overcome their problematic drug use through spirituality, and offers no medication for combating withdrawal symptoms. Supervisor, Benjamin Cheung, has given insight into the group’s philosophy: “except for turning to Jesus, I don’t see any other way [in drug rehabilitation]”.

Similarly, the Ling Oi Centre, operated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong, provides no medication in its so-called Gospel Treatment Programme, but includes “religious sessions to experience bible reading and hymn singing” from the moment of intake.

Faith-based drug treatment may be effective for some; certain individuals who structure their lives around their problematic drug use could find Christian treatment useful for providing new routines, communities, and a sense of identity.

The problem with Hong Kong rehabilitation services does not necessarily lie in the existence of faith-based treatment. Rather, many people continue to endure the hardships of problematic drug use because of the dominance of Christian programmes, and the lack of secular, evidence-based alternatives.

Additionally, the ideologies entrenched in faith-based approaches to rehabilitation may have dangerous consequences for society’s perception of drug use, and therefore for people who use drugs.

Religious narratives often carry moralistic perspectives regarding drug use, which in turn increase the related stigma. This stigma may further marginalise people who use drugs, and discourage objective discussion about substance use; this holds back research on drugs and drug policy, while reducing the likelihood of evidence-based harm reduction services being implemented.

There are seemingly no plans for an increase in secular drug rehabilitation programmes in Hong Kong, state-run or NGO-run. This is set to pose a continued obstacle to the reduction of problematic drug use, particularly among people from non-Christian backgrounds.

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