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Shedding Light on the Drugs World

Understanding the set and setting of drug use is critical to assessing a user’s mind set and devising appropriate treatment or sentencing.

Workshop on Drug Policy, Practice and Society in Asia 2019 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Faculty of Social Sciences of The University of Macau in August 2019

Workshop on Drug Policy, Practice and Society in Asia 2019 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Faculty of Social Sciences of The University of Macau in August 2019

Workshop on Drug Policy, Practice and Society in Asia 2019 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Faculty of Social Sciences of The University of Macau in August 2019

Workshop on Drug Policy, Practice and Society in Asia 2019 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Faculty of Social Sciences of The University of Macau in August 2019

Professor Karen Laidler giving a talk at the Human Rights and Drug Policy Workshop in East and Southeast Asia 2018 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Open Society Foundation at HKU in October 2018

Professor Karen Laidler giving a talk at the Human Rights and Drug Policy Workshop in East and Southeast Asia 2018 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Open Society Foundation at HKU in October 2018

Professor Karen Laidler (first from right in the front row) at the Human Rights and Drug Policy Workshop in East and Southeast Asia 2017 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Open Society Foundation at HKU in October 2017

Professor Karen Laidler (first from right in the front row) at the Human Rights and Drug Policy Workshop in East and Southeast Asia 2017 jointly organised by the Centre for Criminology and Open Society Foundation at HKU in October 2017

The Hong Kong drugs world operates in the opaque conditions necessitated by their illegal status. For the judiciary, that opacity hampers their ability to set appropriate sentences for drugs crimes through a lack of detailed knowledge of the drugs landscape, including understanding the nuances in drug types, drug users and the relevance of the setting in which drugs are used. The lack of knowledge about drugs also hinders society’s understanding, rehabilitation and treatment of drug users. 

In research spanning decades, Professor Karen Laidler, Professor of the Department of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Criminology, has examined the local and regional drugs market, how users get hold of drugs, the effects of different drugs, their usage, patterns and consequences of use, and the impact of drug use on the community as well as recovery from dependence. Her work has resulted in practical and direct help to the judiciary, more informed treatment for drug users, and better awareness in society of the risks and effects of drug taking.  

Much of her work is gained from first-hand interviews with drug users and dealers and interviewing police, teachers and drug treatment workers. She found that different drugs have different effects, people take them for many different reasons, and understanding the set and setting of drug use is critical to assessing a user’s mind set and devising appropriate treatment or sentencing.

“Drug use should be understood in this way and rather than take a criminalised viewpoint. It’s much more helpful to take a health approach,” said Professor Laidler. 

In a 2005 landmark case, Hong Kong courts were attempting to set appropriate sentencing guidelines and struggled to understand the differences and similarities between ecstasy and ketamine. They called on Professor Laidler to give expert evidence. As a result of her evidence, the Court of Appeal established separate sentencing guidelines for the two drugs, ruling that sentences for both drugs should be the same, but higher than those previously outlined. The new rationale and guidelines have so far impacted 1,312 cases. Her reports and witness testimony have been cited in at least 681 other drug-related cases and she regularly provides expert evidence on drug-related crimes.

Professor Laidler’s work has reached across borders. As director of the Centre, she set up a drug policy and harm reduction training programme in 2015, providing social workers, academics, activists, journalists, and other professionals across Southeast Asia with the tools and know-how to make an impact on policy, advocacy and programmes and have built a peer support system. Programme alumni from the Philippines, for example, have worked with legislators to draft legislative bills and taken leading roles in education and advocacy of harm reduction, including explaining drug effects and advising users on HIV and AIDS risks. 

Professor Karen Laidler of the Department of Sociology received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2019 of the Faculty of Social Sciences for the project ‘Influencing Drug Policies and Well-being of Drug Users in Hong Kong and East and Southeast Asia’.

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