Inside the Dragon’s drug den

Drug demand is showing no signs of slowing down

Patrick Cordwell

Society and culture | East Asia

22 August 2016

Chinese production of illicit drugs has skyrocketed and domestic demand is keeping pace, writes Patrick Cordwell.

It might seem a far cry from the sweaty raves of Berlin or the night-long parties on Ibiza, but a similar kind of hedonism is emerging in China. Swift economic growth and rising affluence in the middle class are producing an unprecedented demand for recreational drugs in China (and a problem for Chinese authorities).

Drug use is not a new phenomenon in China. For decades heroin has been an attractive vice for the under-class, largely due to China’s proximity to Afghanistan and Myanmar – the world’s largest opium producers.

However, a rapid increase in domestic drug use is making it harder for Chinese authorities to blame their neighbours. The problem now lies firmly in their backyard.

As China establishes itself as an industrial powerhouse in the world economy it has come to house a significant portion of the global production of many illicit substances. Just as it has long been the Global Factory for our televisions and laptops, China is now (perhaps inevitably) occupying the same role in the international drug market.

Clandestine drug labs, mainly in Shanghai and other port cities, are manufacturing an array of drugs that have previously been rare in China. Free from the tough controls of other countries, precursor chemicals that are produced legally and legitimately in China for the pharmaceuticals industry are being redirected onto the illicit production line to manufacture massive quantities of MDMA, ketamine and cocaine.

In addition to these illicit substances, these same labs are producing any number of other synthetic drugs that exist in grey areas of the law. As soon as one substance is outlawed, chemists synthesise a new compound that hits the market almost immediately. Manufacture is taking place at a faster rate than can be controlled by the Chinese authorities.


Authorities seize a large quantity of drugs and raw materials during a raid in Guandong Province. (Photo source: Stringer/Reuters)

While much of the production line is bound for foreign lands, it’s clear that a significant amount is remaining in China to satiate the increasingly hungry domestic consumer market. The expanding urban and affluent population in particular seems to have developed an appetite for these substances with a nascent class of young hedonists leading the charge. They seek out the diverse array of substances that are newly available on the black market armed with disposable income and more freedom than ever.

Several high-profile cases confirm that drug use in China is no longer confined to serious opiate addicts. In 2014, Jackie Chan’s son served a six-month prison sentence for marijuana possession while a growing number of senior government officials have been expelled from the Party for failing drug tests. Such incidents have been paraded before the public as part of expanding anti-drug campaigns that seek to shame drug users.

This neatly reflects the Communist Party’s frequently touted rhetoric that drug use is a form of moral corruption and the scourge of society. Their approach to combatting drug use has been tough, with a focus on harsh penalties.

Reports suggest that mass detention of users in detox centres is a common occurrence, with more serious offences carrying life imprisonment or even death. Little thought is given to rehabilitation let alone the underlying social or economic factors that drive drug use.


Inmates sew at a drug detention centre in Yunnan province. (Photo source: Reuters)

Unsurprisingly, despite these public crackdowns demand for illicit substances continues to rise. A report released last year by China’s National Narcotics Control Commission estimated that the number of drug users in China exceeded 14 million in 2014 – a massive 20% increase on the year before.

The unprecedented demand from the countries’ booming cities is showing no sign of slowing down. This reflects a new reality for urban China: easy access to cheap drugs and a population with both the money and ravenous desire for their mind-bending effects.

Meanwhile, the labs keep churning out an endless quantity of substances to keep up with demand. For the time being it seems that they’ll stay at least one step ahead of the authorities.

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  1. globalnews says:

    14 million? thats a small suburb of one city..

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