Among the constellation of urban vice in Hong Kong – prostitution, illegal gambling and organized crime – drug abuse is perhaps the most widespread and fastest growing. It is a guilty pleasure that transcends socioeconomic class and ethnic backgrounds, fuelled by the influx of cheap drugs from Mainland China and other emerging markets in Asia. And the upcoming murder trial of Rurik Jutting, a Cambridge-educated Hong Kong-based investment banker known for his “regular weekend drug binges”, is expected to thrust the well-known but little mentioned subject of illegal drug use, especially among high-rolling banking professionals, back into newspaper headlines and public discourse.
The Jutting story has prompted me to send out a few text messages scouting for people in the know for a dose of inside scoop. It didn’t take me long to zero in on JD*, a self-proclaimed drug enthusiast who happens to be a derivatives trader for a bulge-bracket investment bank. The 26-year-old Chinese Canadian moved to Hong Kong from Toronto two years ago. He and his girlfriend Claire* share an apartment on Wanchai’s Star Street, one of the city’s upscale expat enclaves. The couple, together with their like-minded friends, use drugs recreationally and regularly.
Like other young bankers, JD is smart and assertive. And like other derivatives traders, he is accustomed to taking calculated risks for himself and his clients. JD applies his professional skills to his pharmacological pursuits, and manages his exposure by doing extensive research on the garden variety of drugs available in Hong Kong. Out of everything he and Claire have sampled over the years, MDMA and cocaine are their substances of choice. MDMA, which stands for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is a psychoactive drug made from safrole oil. In tablet form, it is commonly known as “ecstasy” or its street name “E.” But JD is a purist and prefers to ingest MDMA in its crystalline form.
“MDMA is a great party drug because it enhances my perception of colors and sounds,” JD enthused. “It also makes me feel empathetic toward my friends. I take it twice a month when I go clubbing.”
“Coke does something entirely different,” he continued, “It gives you a confidence boost and a sense of accomplishment – the same feeling you get after closing a multimillion-dollar deal. Unlike MDMA, there is no hangover the following day. I can do a few lines on a Sunday night and go to work Monday morning.”
“How about heroin and methamphetamine?” I asked. “They’re very popular among Hong Kong Chinese.” Meth is also called “ice” in the local vernacular.
JD cringed when he heard those words. “We call heroin and ice ‘trashy drugs.’ They’re highly addictive and shooting up heroin leaves needle holes on your arms. Low-income folks take them because they are cheap. Bankers, especially the expats, don’t really touch that stuff.”
“Do you smoke pot too?” I asked, conscious of the fact that marijuana has recently been legalized in four U.S. states.
“Pot is cool,” he beamed. “Claire prefers using a glass bong. We smoke in the living room while watching television. Marijuana contains less tar than tobacco and so the smell doesn’t stick to the furniture.”
“How about ketamine or LSD?” I pressed, determined to cover all the bases.
“Not as much. Ketamine is called K-jai here. It makes you hallucinate and gives you an out of body sensation. When you move your arms, for instance, it feels like you’re moving somebody else’s body part. Claire and I took some before we went hiking on Lantau Island yesterday. As for LSD, it’s very difficult to get it in Hong Kong, and so we don’t do much of it. No supply, no demand.”
Our conversation segued naturally into sources and pricing. My insider proceeded to walk me through where he gets his goods and how much he pays for them.
“Say, if I want some coke – which comes in one-eighth ounce packages – I’ll phone up one of my guys who will either come to my apartment or meet me in his car or a taxi. He’ll take my cash, hand me the stuff and drop me off a block away.”
“Who exactly are these guys of yours?”
“There’re a few dozen dealers in the city. They’re local men in their 30s – decent guys who want to make a few bucks. It’s all business: efficient and uneventful.”
I asked JD whether these men were connected with the triads – the local mafia.
“I suppose someone somewhere up the food chain is. But the guys I deal with are low level distributors. There’re no dragon tattoos or missing fingers. They wear polo shirts and khakis just like you and me.”.
“Alright, let's talk money. How much is a gram of coke these days?” I probed.
“I pay about HK$800 (US$103) for a gram, which will last me and Claire all night. It’s cheaper than buying booze, and that’s partly why cocaine is popular.”
“And the others?”
“Marijuana comes in dried flower buds. A pack costs roughly HK$600 and is good for eight joints. E, on the other hand, is overpriced in Hong Kong. It costs HK$300 a pill, compared to less than HK$100 in the U.S. But prices for E have started to come down since the mainland Chinese started making synthetic safrole oil.”
Once money and drugs change hands, it is all good. JD and his friends consume what they buy at home to avoid having to carry it or pass it around in public – except for coke, which he usually has a second helping in the club’s bathroom. It is called a “key bump” because the small amount is snorted from a household key.
“Have drugs become a big part of your life?” I asked, out of genuine concern.
“Not as much as it sounds,” JD defended. “It’s a hobby, not a habit. I’m aware of the dangers, not only the legal risks but also the health effects. The main worry is that your body may build up a tolerance over time, and that you have to take more and more to get the same high. That’s why Claire and I space out our uses. Drugs are just like alcohol or fatty food, you have to know your limits.”
JD is not just an enthusiast; he is also an advocate. “Drugs have been demonized because people fear what they don’t understand,” he argued. “They can be a useful tool if we learn to use them responsibly. Psychedelic substances allow you to explore your deeper emotions and confront your demons, whatever they are. They’ve helped Claire and me work through our relationship problems.”
JD has a point. In the U.S., clinical trials are being conducted to use MDMA, ketamine and magic mushrooms to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In recent months, JD has been ordering drugs in larger quantities and selling some of them to his friends for a profit. To do that, he has not only moved up the local supply chain but also started importing from overseas. He even has test kits at home to verify the chemical contents of his purchases. For his own protection, he would not disclose how he manages to evade Hong Kong Customs when shipping banned substances into the city.
But the stakes can be high. The maximum penalty for drug trafficking in Hong Kong is HK$5,000,000 in fines and life imprisonment. A disgruntled customer or a careless friend is all it takes to get JD into serious trouble. For now, he is taking it all in stride. He insisted that he knew what he was doing.
“I import in very small quantities,” JD stressed. “It makes sense because if I’m buying for myself anyway, I may as well order a bit more for my close friends. By the way, text me if you want some for yourself. I sell better stuff than the junk on the street.”
*Their real names have been concealed to protect their anonymity.
This article was published in the January/February 2015 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column “The Urban Confessional.”