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.
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.
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.