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China’s drug takers are chasing newer highs

Younger Chinese revellers are seeking new highs. Ding Zhou

The close of 2013 saw a drugs bust of cinematic proportions in China.

Part of Operation Thunder, more than 3,000 armed police with a cavalry of helicopters, motorboats and police dogs busted the village of Boshe’s drug rings, including 18 large gangs and 77 drug-production sites. They seized nearly three tonnes of methamphetamine, 260kg of ketamine and more than 23 tonnes of other raw drug material.

Boshe village and the surrounding city of Lufeng (in the south-eastern province of Guangdong) have long been notorious for drug manufacturing. In 2013 more than 20% of the families in Boshe were engaged in drug trafficking – directly or by proxy – and it provided a third of the crystal meth in China, up from 14% in 2010.

Synthetic drug manufacturing dens are not uncommon in China. China’s Ministry of Public Security destroyed 326 drug dens in 2012 across 22 Chinese provinces. Among the country’s ten largest narcotics cases in 2012, there were nine cases about manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic drugs. Shanwei and Huizhou cities, also in Guangdong province, and Chengdu city in Sichuan province in particular are making most of the crystal methamphetamine and ketamine in China.

Along with increasing numbers of new synthetic drugs being trafficked into the country from the neighbouring region – Myanmar especially – the size of the domestic production has been growing rapidly in recent years.

Synthetic drug use up

Methamphetamine is a stimulant and gives users sensations including euphoria and alertness but it can also cause compulsive feelings and ravage persistent users. Ketamine is an anaesthetic and it can give users an out of body experience, but over time can damage the kidneys and bladder.

Coinciding with the rise in domestic production of synthetic drugs in China, the number of synthetic drug users has also risen sharply. This boom has resulted in more and more new abusers.

In China, drug users are required to register with the local police force. This information is collected in the Narcotics Control Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security. By the end of March last year 40% of registered users had used synthetic drugs, up from as low as 7% in 2005. Estimates also suggest that the majority (about 86%) are under the age of 18. In recent years, more and more Chinese youths select to use synthetic drugs and ice (another name for crystal meth) and ketamine in bars, at karaoke and other places.

To face the rampant domestic manufacture of synthetic drugs and the rapid rise in users that has accompanied it, a number of steps need to be taken to reduce both the supply and demand.

A three-step programme

The Chinese government could give greater attention to reducing the domestic supply of synthetic drugs. China engages with and co-operates with its south-east Asian neighbours on the issue of drug control, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia.

But, given the increase in domestic manufacturing of synthetic drugs, the Chinese government should enforce stricter measures. There are multiple stages where the manufacturing trade can be tackled, from clamping down in the trade of the drugs’ base ingredients such as PMK, to where they are manufactured and then trafficked.

The government should help find alternative economic options for people who manufacture synthetic drugs. Synthetic drugs offer a low cost and high profit business model to citizens. The rise in this illegal economy has come at the expense of the traditional economy of agriculture. Economic support and investment the local infrastructure could be an appropriate response.

Drug education programmes among young people could also be improved. Many young people in China lack awareness of the dangers involved in synthetic drug taking. Young users can feel “high” but not as though they are “addicts”. Their focus is on the entertainment part of taking drugs and there is an ignorance surrounding their long-term health effects.

The public perception of drug addiction was defined around opiates such as opium and heroin, and therefore it conceals the real risk of synthetic drugs. Opiates – though still used, particularly among an older generation – have had sufficient bad press to ensure that people are aware of the dangers and health risks.

To tackle the problem, the Chinese government should conduct targeted research and treatment programmes for synthetic drugs, redefine understanding of addiction beyond opiates and establish better definitions of synthetic drugs – what they are and what is in them.

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