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In a Chinese supermarket
China has a local tradition of drug use. Heroin, opium and hashish are cheap in some places. The Chinese government estimates that there are between 2 million and 3 million drug users in China. The real figure, however, is thought to be at least four to five times higher. China reportedly holds half a million drug abusers in compulsory rehabilitation at any given time, civic groups and academics have said.

Illegal drug use has increased steadily over the years in China. The number of users registered by the government rose from just over 1 million in 2003 to about 2.5 million in 2013, according to China’s annual report on drug control. About half of all addicts are addicted to heroin, but they are outnumbered by users of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. The main source many of the illegal drugs used in China is Myanmar. More than 92 percent of heroin and 95 percent of methamphetamine seized by Chinese authorities in 2013 could be traced back to Myanmar. [Source: Denise Hruby Sixth Tone, May 22, 2017]

When Mao came to power in 1949 there were an estimated 20 million drug users in China. Using harsh methods, including executions, the Communists were able to rid China of its drug problem almost over night. But in the 1980s when China opened up more and eased its border controls drugs began flowing into the country and more people began using them, with drug use really taking off in the 2000s. The manager at one drug rehab center told the Washington Post, “It just boomed. Yesterday, no drugs This morning, all over the place."

China has tough drug laws. Getting caught dealing or trafficking even small amounts of drugs can bring someone a death sentence. Even so dug use is increasing rapidly in China, especially among migrant workers. Explaining why the director of a drug rehabilitation center in Kunming told the Washington Post, “Each year, farmers who lose their land come to the city for jobs, but they can’t cope with the changes. People all over China want a better life, but they feel lost. They cannot hold their families together, and in frustration they turn to drugs. White-collar workers like to go to discos and use ecstacy. They like to use the new drugs and follow the latest fashions."

Cannabis use: percentage of the population aged 15-64: 0.04 percent (2015, compared to 27 percent in Israel, 16.2 percent in the United States and .3 percent in Japan [Source: World Drug reports of 2011 and 2006 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Drug use deaths (per 100,000 people): 1.84 (compared to 15.93 in Ukraine and 0.30 in Japan. [Source: World Health Organization, World Life Expectancy ]

In August 2006, Chinese and U.S. drug agents seized a record 142.7 kilograms of cocaine being smuggled from Columbia to China. Despite this, cocaine is a rare find in China/

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Hashish, China Not so Special blog ; Cannabis History ; Opium Trade in China

Drug Use — Mostly Synthetics Such as Meth — Increased in China in the 2010s

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According to Associated Press; “Illegal drug use has ballooned in China in recent decades, after being virtually eradicated following the 1949 communist revolution. Narcotics began to reappear with the loosening of social controls in the late 1980s. In more recent years, rising wealth and greater personal freedoms have been accompanied by a growing popularity of methamphetamines and the party drugs Ecstasy and ketamine. They are often bought on social media forums and consumed in nightclubs, leading to periodic police crackdowns. [Source: Associated Press, August 18, 2014 ^^^]

In 2016 the number of known drug users in China rose 6.8 percent to 2.505 million. Of these, more than 60 percent consumed synthetic drugs (primarily methamphetamine and ketamine), 38 percent used opiates such as heroin, and a little more than 1 percent cocaine and marijuana. [Source: AFP, March 27, 2017]

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Seizures of illegal drugs jumped almost 50 percent last year in China, authorities said Thursday, with young people and rural residents showing an increasing appetite for meth, crystal meth and other amphetamine-type stimulants. “China said it “solved” 165,000 drug-crime cases nationwide in 2015, up 13.2 percent, with the number of arrests up 15 percent and the quantity of drugs confiscated up by almost half, to 102.5 tons, compared with 2014's figure, according to Liu Yuejin, vice commissioner of the China National Narcotics Control Commission. “The drug trade, added Liu, is becoming increasingly violent. In a country where firearms are strictly controlled and relatively difficult to obtain, police seized 466 guns last year in drug cases, up 40 percent, along with 30,000 rounds of ammunition. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2016]

“Almost 80 percent of drugs seized were manufactured in China, with most of the rest coming from the “Golden Triangle” where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge, and the “Golden Crescent” comprising Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Heroin and opiate use is slowing in China, while synthetic drugs are booming. Of the 531,000 “newly discovered drug users” registered by China in 2015, Liu said, 80.5 percent were using amphetamine-type stimulants including meth, speed, ecstasy and crystal meth (also known as ice), compared with just 17.4 percent abusing opiates. ““Farmers and unemployed people, ” said Liu, made up 78.9 percent of the 194,000 people arrested on drug charges.

Methamphetamines in China

According to the UNODC: In China, data on people who use drugs and are registered with the authorities suggest that after years of sharp increases, methamphetamine use is stabilizing. Users of synthetic drugs (mainly methamphetamine) accounted for 55 percent of the nearly 2.2 million drug users officially registered with the authorities in 2019. This proportion had been increasing since the early 2000s, when roughly 75 percent of people registered for drug use were users of opioids. The number of people using methamphetamine registered in China increased between 2008 and 2014 and has remained stable ever since.[Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]

In contrast to most of Asia, the amount of methamphetamine seized in China declined from 37 tons in 2015 to 25 tons in 2019; the wholesale price of the substance increased from $36,200 per kilogram in 2016 to $53,400 in 2019, while the retail price of methamphetamine increased from $61 per gram in 2015 to more than $100 per gram in 2019. In parallel, the street purity of methamphetamine declined from 95 percent in 2015 to 72 percent in 2019. All of this suggests that the availability of methamphetamine on the Chinese market has declined in recent years.

By 2018 in China, methamphetamine found on the domestic market originated primarily in neighbouring countries (70 percent in 2018). The main import country for methamphetamine appears to be Myanmar: some 98 percent of all imported methamphetamine originated, departed or transited Myanmar before arriving in China in 2019.While there were no reports from Myanmar of dismantled methamphetamine laboratories during 2019, information from Yunnan Province in China, bordering Myanmar, points to ever larger drug seizures over the past few years, suggesting an increase in illicit imports from Myanmar, including of methamphetamine. In 2020, 20.2 tons of drugs were seized in Yunnan Province, accounting for 36.3 percent of the total quantities of drugs seized in China as a whole.

Reports of individual seizures suggest that an increasing share of the methamphetamine seized in China has been seized in Yunnan province over the last decade, pointing towards the growing importance of Myanmar as a key location for methamphetamine exports to China. At the same time, the manufacture of methamphetamine is expanding around the Golden Triangle, as well as in Cambodia and Viet Nam, partly as a result of large transnational organized crime syndicates moving from China to various other countries in the subregion in order to evade increasing law enforcement pressure in China in recent years

Drug Use in China Near the Myanmar Border

Denise Hruby wrote in Sixth Tone: “In Myanmar’s northern Kachin and Shan states, where rebel groups have long financed their fight for independence with illicit substances, drug use was systemic among Chinese and local loggers. When Cao was offered opium by his foreman, he thought he’d give it a try. “Then, without realizing it, you become controlled by it, ” Cao said, nervously fidgeting with his hands. “You have to take it. Otherwise, you cannot even walk.” “When fighting made their work unsafe, Cao and other Chinese loggers returned to their homes near the border and fully succumbed to their addictions. “It’s very easy to buy drugs in Chinese villages; everyone knows someone, ” he said with a knowing smile.[Source: Denise Hruby Sixth Tone, May 22, 2017]

Many major drug busts occur in Yunnan Province near Myanmar. “Drugs are widely available here, and addiction is more prevalent than in China’s hinterland, Su Xiaobo, an associate professor who researches the narcotics trade between Myanmar and China at the University of Oregon, told Sixth Tone. “For sure, geographic proximity to Myanmar is a major factor, ” Su said. On small routes crossing the more than 2,000-kilometer mountainous border, where the jungle’s thick foliage provides ample cover, drug traffickers can easily bypass law enforcement. “Many Chinese villages in the border areas are deeply penetrated by the drug trade, ” Su said.

Online Drug Sales in China

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “Ordering illegal drugs from China is as easy as typing on a keyboard.. On, more than 150 Chinese companies sell alpha-PVP, also known as flakka, a dangerous stimulant that is illegal in the United States but not in China, and was blamed for 18 recent deaths in one Florida county. [Source:Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

In November 2011, Chinese police reported they had arrested 12,125 people during a crackdown on online narcotics sales and confiscated more than 300 kilograms of illegal drugs. China's police say they began detaining people suspected of involvement in online drug sale in early September Xinhua state news agency reported that police were tipped off to the scale of the problem after investigating chatrooms in the western cities of Lanzhou and Xian that were used to peddle drugs. [Source: AP, Xinhua]

"Newcomers were only allowed to enter the chat room after being introduced by 'acquaintances' and taking drugs live via webcam," a police officer told Xinua. Police began detaining suspects in early September, according to the report, and the youngest suspect was 14 years old. Websites must "take responsibility in fighting such illegal activities" and new laws be drafted to cope with this new problem, the Xinhua report said.

Obtaining Illegal Drugs Online In China Outside of China

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “ The e-commerce portal Qinjiayuan sells air-conditioners, trampolines and a banned hallucinogen known as spice, which set off a devastating spike in United States emergency room visits in April.“The stimulant mephedrone, sometimes sold as “bath salts, ” is banned in China but readily for sale at the Nanjing Takanobu Chemical Company for about $1,400 a pound. “I can handle this for you legally or illegally, ” a company salesman said by phone when asked about shipping the product overseas from the company’s headquarters in coastal Jiangsu Province. “How much do you want?” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

“In a country that has perfected the art of Internet censorship, the open online drug market is just the most blatant example of what international law enforcement officials say is China’s reluctance to take action as it has emerged as a major player in the global supply chain for synthetic drugs.

The English-language website of China Enriching Chemistry, a Shanghai company, is a veritable Amazon of synthetic drugs. While China says it has made thousands of arrests and “joined hands” with foreign law enforcement agencies, officials from several countries say Chinese authorities have shown little interest in seriously combating what they see as the drug problems of other countries.

Methamphetamines, Ecstacy and Party Drugs in China

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According to AFP: The production of methamphetamine — either in tablet "yaba" form or the highly potent crystallised "ice" version — ketamine and fentanyl take place primarily in Myanmar's eastern Shan state, but much of the precursor chemicals needed to cook them flows across the border from China. [Source: AFP, November 16, 2019]

In China, methamphetamine is the second most popular drug after heroin, according to Reuters. The use of amphetamines and ecstacy is mushrooming throughout Southeast Asia and Eastern Asia. By some accounts half the people who abuse amphetamines worldwide are in East and Southeast Asia. More than 80 percent of global seizures of amphetamines in 2000 were in Asia. Ephedrine, a drug used to make methamphetamine and treat asthma and lower blood pressure, comes from China. The drug's source, the green-stemmed "Ephedra sinica" plant, was mentioned in a 52 volume medical guide in 1590.

In 2007, police seizures of party drugs such as ecstacy, methamphetamines and ketamine doubled. That year police detained 60,000 suspects and seized 2 million Ecstacy tablets, 6.2 tons of methamphetamines and 5.2 tons of ketamine.

Ecstacy is known as yaotou (“shake-head drug.” or "head-rocking pill”). It is a popular club drug. One Shanghai disc jockey told the Independent, "People work hard these days, so they want to play hard. Why not? Dancing to your favorite music and feeling high, that’s the happiest thing in life." Chinese gangsters traffic ecstacy and other synthetic hallucinogens. In the city of Foshan, also in Guangdong, over 700 pounds of meth and ecstasy were found in December 2015, concealed in 88 containers of knockoff luxury watches at a logistics company.

In 2017, The Chinese government said that the country’s drug problem was severe and growing, particularly the abuse and production of synthetic drugs. AFP reported: Chinese seizures of methamphetamine, ketamine and other synthetic drugs surged by 106 percent year in 2016, said Liu Yuejin, vice-director of the China National Narcotics Control Commission. At the same time, the manufacture of drug precursors increased along with the production of new psychoactive substances (NPS), chemicals that mimic the effects of illegal drugs while exploiting loopholes in anti-drug laws. “Domestic production of crystalline methamphetamine, ketamine, and NPS was severe, not only consumed in the country but also smuggled overseas, ” Liu told a press conference, adding that the market for synthetic drugs kept expanding and “in general, the drug problem is still spreading at a fast pace”. [Source: Agence France-Presse, March 27, 2017]

“Online sales of the drugs in China saw a sharp increase, said an annual report from Liu’s commission, with contraband smuggled in postal parcels and other means. Two raids on online drug sellers last year ended in the arrests of 21,000 people, and the seizure of 10.8 tonnes of drugs and 52 tonness of precursor chemicals, which can be used to manufacture synthetic drugs. The use of synthetic drugs at home has also accelerated, it said, noting that drug usage in the country had undergone a “fundamental change” as users moved away from opiates like heroin towards newly emerging drugs.

Ketamine: China’s Party Drug in the 2000s

Dylan Levi King wrote in Palladium: “The riot cops marched in and arranged themselves around the dance floor in a well-practiced formation. As they approached me and my friends, I could feel my pulse quicken. The police came to a halt within spitting distance, taking in the entire scene. I knew they had a clear view of the mounds of ketamine on the table in front of me. It wasn’t mine, I swear. But I didn’t want to have to explain that while sitting in a tiger chair at a Public Security Bureau detention center. Fortunately, it never came to that: they glanced around and then walked out. The man across the table from me went back to work dividing lines with his Agricultural Bank of China debit card. The six-fingered Uzbek dancer got back up on the bar and undressed to a Eurobeat remix of a Mongolian folk song. Faces bent to the table. [Source:Dylan Levi King, Palladium, June 23, 2021]

“I saw this scene replayed across China many times in the early 2000s, from provincial capitals to backwater towns. The nightlife ran on ketamine. If it wasn’t being openly displayed on club tables beside the fruit platters and bottle service jugs of Qoo and Red Label, then it was cut into neat lines and stashed in an ashtray. It appeared in Qzone photo albums, staged beside pink straws and stacks of red hundred-yuan notes.

“When I describe club tables covered in powder to anyone too young to have been in nightclubs in the 2000s, they’re a little stunned. By the 2010s, ketamine had mostly disappeared. It disappeared from clubs. It was scarce in karaoke boxes. I still saw it sometimes — snorted by two sculptors during a screening of Beetlejuice at an art space in Tianhe sometime in 2013, offered for sale at Catwalk in Yuexiu around 2014, and flaunted by some girls at a bar in Datong in 2015. But it was nothing like back in the day.

“A 2014 study of Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai’s water treatment plants searched for drugs and their metabolites in wastewater. It discovered a sharp decline in ketamine use, with significant prevalence only in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. An even wider sewage study involving eighteen cities concluded that ketamine use was in decline. A team from Renmin University in Beijing, checking for traces of ketamine and metabolites in the wastewater of several cities, found a 67 percent decrease in ketamine usage in 2015 alone. The China National Narcotics Control Commission reported a steep decline in busts of “production dens.”

Ketamine demand is still there. Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In May 2015, police in Guangdong busted a 3,000-square-foot meth factory on a goose farm in the city of Yangjiang whose products were being disguised as black tea and shipped to Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Twenty-seven people were arrested, including several Taiwanese citizens. Authorities also confiscated more than 1.39 tons of solid and solid-liquid ketamine, 3 tons of other drug precursor material, along with weapons and 12 vehicles. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2016]

History of Ketamine in China

Ketamine arrived China in the 1970s as a medicine, not as recreational drug. Dylan Levi King wrote in Palladium: “Ketamine was an American invention. In the late 1950s, it was developed as an inexpensive and reliable alternatives to narcotics derived from the opium poppy. The first product of those efforts had been phencyclidine (PCP). Ketamine was its cousin, intended to deliver analgesic effects without turning people violent, as PCP sometimes did in human tests. The drug was patented in 1966 and approved by the FDA under the trade name Ketalar in 1970.

It spread quickly through the Global South, since it was valuable emergency medicine in settings with undeveloped medical infrastructure. It was also an ideal battlefield anesthetic. It was easy to train people to administer an intramuscular injection of ketamine. In the late 1970s, leaders in the psychedelic movement trumpeted ketamine. The Hippie Trail, eventually carried as far as Hong Kong.[Source: Dylan Levi King, Palladium, June 23, 2021]

“The People’s Liberation Army eventually called for ketamine production. Up until then, if a soldier needed a slug pulled out of his gut in Korea or got horribly burned in a Soviet mortar attack in Heilongjiang, there wasn’t much to do for them, except shooting them up with whatever morphine was on hand. An unpublished internal document by Xie Rong shows that the People’s Liberation Army emphasized ketamine as a key element in “battle preparedness.” In 1979, when the PLA charged across the Vietnamese border to punish the Lê Du n for giving Pol Pot the boot, ketamine was finally in their arsenal. The many reports in People’s Military Surgeon on the use of ketamine for battlefield anesthesia through the 1980s prove its efficacy — and also show that there was a lot of the stuff floating around.

“By 1999, the drug had exploded in popularity in Hong Kong itself, first with expatriate partiers returning from Goa with medical-grade ketamine diverted from pharmaceutical manufacturers in the Indian state of Maharashtra, then with locals that used it as a cheap alternative or chaser for MDMA or methamphetamine. By 2006, nearly three-quarters of self-reported drug users in Hong Kong claimed to have used ketamine.

“With the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen increasingly porous after the 1997 handover, it wasn’t long before ketamine made the leap, too. The Chinese government’s Annual Report on Drug Control started claiming seizures of ketamine by the ton in 2003, and it managed to beat heroin seizure numbers in 2007 and 2008.

“Ketamine poured into the fresh market provided by hundreds of millions of migrant workers heading south to labor in the post-WTO factory of the world. The legal monthly minimum wage in Shenzhen circa 2000 was $547 USD, $450 USD in Guangdong, and $420 USD in Fujian. But most workers were making significantly less than that — even as low as $150 USD a month. A night at a club could cost most of a month’s salary, but a gram of ketamine was only around $6-18 USD.

“Throughout the 1990s, hundreds of millions of workers were tossed out of jobs, or shuffled into the ill-defined category of xiagang: still on the employment rolls and receiving certain social security benefits from their former work unit, but with no work assigned and no wages. The workers in the xiagang category in the 1990s were generally women. Employer preferences in the hiring of migrant workers led to a workforce dominated by unmarried young women. As a result, one factor that gave ketamine a boost was that it gave these women a break from the strict gender codes around drinking booze.

“A drug like ketamine might have felt taboo, but migrant workers in China lived lives that their parents couldn’t have dreamed of: they were more mobile, of course, but they also drank more and had more premarital sex. There’s a reason that syphilis — declared extinct in the People’s Republic — saw a rapid resurgence. It wasn’t long before ketamine was carried out of the coastal manufacturing centers as workers moved around. The best way to track the progress of the drug is through public security sector journals. In 2003, two workers attached to a Public Security Bureau compulsory drug rehabilitation lock-up in the city of Wenzhou suggested that ketamine had recently jumped from the Pearl River Delta to the Yangtze River Delta. In 2005, a magazine published by the General Administration of Customs talked about ketamine being distributed in the mail from Fujian. The journal of Henan’s Public Security Bureau noted its presence in dance halls in Zhengzhou a year later. By 2009, there were notes in a legal newsletter about discovering ketamine as far afield as Lhasa in Tibet.

Gangsters and Bureaucrats Make Ketamine in China

Dylan Levi King wrote in Palladium: “By the time ketamine started to trickle over the border from Hong Kong in the late 1990s, the party-state had already given up on its statist ideology and traditional sources of legitimacy, replacing them with aggressive depoliticization and the prosperity gospel of market success. [Source: Dylan Levi King, Palladium, June 23, 2021]

“Taiyuan Pharmaceutical was opened as one of the 156 key projects of the First Five-Year Plan, the exact copy of a factory in Shijiazhuang. The Taiyuan factory made sulfonamide antibiotics, while the Shijiazhuang factory made penicillin. Neither had any competition, testaments to the redundancy-reducing efficiency drives of central planning. In 1979, when Deng sent PLA infantry and tanks over the Vietnamese border, chemists from Beijing and Shanghai arrived en masse in Taiyuan to convert some of the factory’s workshops to produce ketamine. But once hostilities ended, so did the ketamine market. Antibiotics didn’t prove much of a cash cow, so the operation began to flounder.

“The Shanxi government struggled to find a buyer for the forty-year-old pharmaceutical plant in the northwestern hinterland; a merger with the more successful Shijiazhuang operation went nowhere. When a Hong Kong gangster arrived in 2002 to order several tons of ketamine — paid for with cash — nobody spent much time scrutinizing the deal.

“If the ketamine hadn’t been intercepted by Guangdong police on its way to Hong Kong, it’s likely that nobody would have raised the alarm until much later. Even the pharmaceutical firms that were doing well didn’t have much objection to selling ketamine. Only five firms had a license to produce it. But in 2003, authorities carried out an investigation into how a pair of drug dealers got their hands on 150 kilograms of ketamine and determined that illicit manufacturing took place at 35 pharmaceutical firms in eight provinces.

“The drug trade compromised not only these former jewels of the command economy, but even the party leadership and bureaucracy. With the party-state in retreat, alternatives arose. One of them was the red-black nexus, a coalition of bureaucrats and gangsters. The bureaucrats and party officials provided the criminals with legitimacy and organizational support, while the criminals offered the politicians a source of income that could be kicked up to the next level. Private enterprises often benefited from the patronage and protection of the first two categories, adding a third element to that nexus. As long as the money kept coming, higher levels tended to be uninterested in how it was generated.

“They also turned a blind eye to practices like land seizures, that filled the coffers of many local governments. Municipalities expropriated state-owned land from residents, sometimes with the help of organized crime muscle, offering it up for sale to private investors. These seizures only became an issue when riots over them made the news.

“This contributed to a general atmosphere of social chaos, and it directly assisted in allowing ketamine to be manufactured inside China, instead of being imported through Hong Kong. One example was Boshe, a village in Guangdong in which the party-state was almost completely absent by the early 2000s, having delegated authority to a local elite organized through the red-black nexus. Close to a third of Boshe residents were involved in the drug trade, all operating under the direction of Cai Dongjia, a local clan patriarch who had become party secretary of Boshe and representative in the Shanwei Municipal People’s Congress. The money he earned through manufacturing ketamine and methamphetamine, as well as by acting as a clearinghouse for shipments of drugs toward Hong Kong, smoothed Cai Dongjia’s climb up the political ladder. His position in the party allowed him to traffic even more dope in turn.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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