Cheap and easy-to-manufacture synthetic drugs edged past heroin as the country's high of choice for the first time last year, China's drug control agency said Wednesday, a trend that comes as the country is increasingly seen as a worldwide supplier of the substances, according to a report by the Bangkok Post quoting Kyodo News on 25 June.
Users of methamphetamine, ecstasy and other synthetic drugs accounted for almost half of all registered Chinese users, up sharply from 28% in 2010, according to a new report by the country's National Narcotics Control Commission. Over 79% of new users identified in 2014 used the drugs, it said.
The change comes amid what appears to be a striking increase in drug use nationwide, with the total number of drug users registered by Chinese law enforcement since 2010 almost doubling from 1.53 million to 2.96 million.
The actual number of users may be as high as 14 million, the report said, representing approximately 1% of the population.
The majority of the drugs arrive in China from the Golden Triangle, the report claims, the region where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet. It has been East Asia's largest producer of opiates for decades, and has become an annual source of billions of illicit amphetamine and methamphetamine tablets, as well as designer drugs such as ecstasy and "ice” or crystallised methamphetamine.
Over 90% of methamphetamine tablets seized by Chinese police in 2014 originated from the area, it said.
But an earlier, more comprehensive NNCC white paper, the similarly titled "Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2015," presents a different picture of the situation, suggesting the growing user base for synthetic drugs may mirror a surge in domestic supply.
"Currently, almost all the crystal methamphetamine and ketamine in the domestic drug consumption market were locally manufactured," it said, noting that just under 85% of crystal meth - the drug's powder form - seized in 2013 originated from southern China. Ketamine is a tranquilizer popular throughout Asia and is one of the Chinese government's top three drugs of concern, along with heroin and methamphetamine.
The revelation reflects a trend that Beijing is eager to downplay: the growing perception of China as the go-to source for a variety of synthetic drugs, as well as ingredients for their manufacture, known as precursors.
Countries across the world point to China as the primary manufacturer of such new drugs as synthetic pot, sometimes called "spice," as well as hundreds of other new designer drugs, according to data collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The trade has been facilitated by the Internet and the rise of global logistics services, which have greatly simplified the process of ordering, paying for, and delivering the drugs.
The most recent NNCC paper gave only passing notice to the problem.
"Considering the massive market and exorbitant profits, it may be hard to contain domestic drug production activities in the short term," it said.
Synthetic drugs have become a favourite of Chinese users and manufacturers because they are easy and quick to produce and require little effort to hide, according to Liu Yuejin, vice chief of the NNCC.
"It's different than heroin, which needs poppy plantations to produce," he said, during a press conference following the report's release. Synthetic drugs "can even be made in a kitchen."
Another major factor in their increased popularity, Liu said, is that Chinese users don't understand the drugs' dangers.
"Heroin is easy to become addicted to," he said. "It has a long history in China, so many people know its threat and harm."
Opium and its derivatives, including heroin, hold a special place in China's national narrative. Disagreements over the drug's import to China by British merchants in the mid-19th century helped spark two wars between China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and Western powers, precipitating the dynasty's collapse and the beginning of what China now describes as a 100-year period of "national humiliation.”
By comparison, synthetic drugs are little known by the public, Liu said.
Many users think, "Methamphetamine is not addictive," he said, so "they sample this drug without knowing the threat of it."
The new report comes as China pursues a massive escalation of its war on drugs.
Drug-related arrests increased by over 47% in 2014 from the previous year, according to the earlier NNCC report.
The stepped-up efforts follow increased attention to the problem by the country's leadership, including President Xi Jinping, who chaired a special meeting on the country's drug situation last year.
The campaign has resulted in the arrests of several notable celebrities, including the son of Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan.