China's Growing Appetite for New Kinds of Luxury Goods: Illegal Drugs

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The country's economy has exploded over the past quarter-century. And so has the market for narcotics whose use was once virtually unheard of.

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John Lee, head of Customs Drug Investigation Bureau, speaks in front of packs of cocaine seized in Hong Kong on July 6, 2012. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

An exponential curve seems to describe most things in modern China -- cars, housing, Louis Vuitton handbags, ice cream, iPads.

It also describes the growth of drug use and addicts. Only 25 years ago, narcotics and illicit drug use were nearly unheard of. Today, Chinese society and government authorities are increasingly grappling with the explosion in drug use and drug addicts, as well as how to respond to the phenomenon. With more relaxed borders, increased wealth, and greater individual freedoms, drug addiction and its consequences threaten to become a permanent fixture within Chinese society. As the Brookings Institution notes in a recent report on U.S.-China counter-narcotics cooperation, what was once called "the American disease" is now a global one.

Drug Growth in China

Drug consumption has grown rapidly in the past few years. According to the Brookings Institution, the number of officially registered addicts increased from 70,000 in 1990 to more than 1.79 million at the end of 2011 -- a 16 percent annual growth rate. In reality, the number of actual addicts may run as high as 12 million, although the distinction between addicts and users in China is not clearly made in these statistics. Moreover, about 32 percent of China's HIV-positive population contracted the disease via intravenous drug use. In comparison, about 18 million people in the United States reported that they needed treatment for a drug abuse problem in 2009.

Source: National Narcotics Control Commission Annual Report on Drug Control in China, 2000-2010, from the Brookings Institution.

Drug use trends have been shifting away from heroin and toward designer and club drugs. Yunnan province, as part of the Golden Triangle, a hotbed of opium production since the 1920s, has also been a hub for heroin trafficking. A heroin fix could run as low as 70 cents in China-Burma border towns. This made drug addiction particularly cheap. Heroin remained the drug of choice among more than 70 percent of registered drug addicts up until 2010.

However, the share of heroin among registered addicts dropped to 64.5 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, China's Xinhua news agency reports synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines, ecstasy, and ketamine accounted for 32.7 percent of registered addicts, while other hard drugs such as cocaine have also grown in popularity. Synthetic drug trafficking is not centralized within Yunnan, with drugs instead coming from North Korea, international transport hubs, and home-grown labs. Crucially, China is a huge source of precursor chemicals like ephedrine and pseudophedrine, which are used to create methamphetamines.

The influx of drugs into China has demanded more attention from law enforcement authorities. Record-breaking drug busts happen frequently, with Hong Kong making the city's largest-ever cocaine bust just last week. In June 2010, Chinese officials seized 1,032.36 kg of heroin and arrested 16 suspects including eight Pakistanis, two Nigerians, one Kenyan, and one Ghanaian. It was the biggest drug trafficking case in the history of Chinese drug control since 1949.

Who's Using?

Young, wealthy urbanites as well as rural youth are driving the popularity of synthetic drug use, with people under 35 years of age comprising more than 80 percent of all addicts. Urban areas like Shanghai, for example, reportedly experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of drug addicts just last year.

But illicit drug use is not confined to one single demographic, nor to one single purpose. In late April, a commercial bus driver who later tested positive for illegal narcotics crashed his bus, killing 14 people. A national drug testing campaign soon followed, with authorities suspending the licenses of 1,436 coach and truck drivers because of drug use between March and May of 2012. While urban youth may use drugs for partying, long-haul drivers oftentimes need uppers to help stay awake. Sometimes they unwittingly consume the stuff, in forms like methamphetamine-laced cigarettes.

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Charles Zhu is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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