On January 3, 2014, Chinese law enforcement conducted an extensive sting operation, seizing kilograms of methamphetamine, 260 kilograms of ketamine powder and more than 23 tons of raw materials used for drug production in Guangdong’s Lufeng city. The 182 people eventually taken into police custody were found to be part of 18 major drug gangs. One was even a former local Communist Party chief and village head.
Commenting on the drug raid at a press conference later that month, Deputy Director-General of Guangdong Provincial Department of Public Security Guo Shaobo revealed a startling statistic: more than one- third of the country’s total methamphetamine over the past three years came from Lufeng. But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Methamphetamines are currently China’s fastest growing drug problem. While still playing second to heroin, the number of domestic registered meth addicts increased by 44 percent in 2012. Why has the ‘bing’ bus set up a station in the Middle Kingdom? Quite simply, looking at logistics of moving other popular recreational drugs, meth makes sense.
Heroin takes a long, arduous journey to reach consumers. In the southeast, it pours across the massive 2,000-kilometer Myanmar border into southern China, through Yunnan or Guangxi, before moving on to southeastern coastal areas like Guangdong or Fujian – where it often makes its way to international customers.
As Chinese authorities clamp down, traffickers have been forced to move their junk. They are also taking advantage of expanding port facilities in cities such as Qingdao, Shanghai and Tianjin to ship heroin via maritime routes. In the northwest regions of the country, Chinese authorities have stated that Afghan heroin represents as much as 20 percent of the heroin entering northwest Xinjiang. However, the fact is that – thanks to increased security measures and, we assume, taste – heroin is dropping in popularity: the number of registered addicts has shrunk more than 13 percent over the past six years.
Geographically, crystal meth suits China’s home-grown drug operations since it is a large country pocked with open spaces ideal for cooking a smelly, noxious, explosive brew – aside from Guangdong province, most pro- duction labs seized are clustered in Sichuan, Henan, Hunan and Hubei. According to a 2011 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), China is also a breeding ground for meth because ephedra grows domestically in great quantities. The herbal plant is the basis for ephedrine, which is used in TCM practices to cure colds and is a major chemical building block for ice and other amphetamines.
It is in these rural spaces where meth consumption is also most rampant; it’s cheap and offers a lot of bang for your buck. Truck drivers take it to stay awake on long-distance runs. Blue-collar or factory workers take it so they can work more hours and to alleviate the tedium of mechanical drudgery. The drug is also starting to penetrate urban areas as a party and sex accompaniment: it induces euphoria and heightens sexual arousal and stamina.
Currently, around 23 percent of all registered drug addicts are hooked on meth (up 9 percent since 2008), with more than 70 percent of users clocking in under the age of 35. The UNODC estimates that, in total, there are about two million people in China using crystal meth on a semi-regular or regular basis, and synthetic drugs were the choice of more than 69 percent of all of China’s new drug users in 2012. This is a huge, tempting market and illicit cooking domestically is not likely to slow down – nor will supplies coming across the porous borders of Myanmar and North Korea.
A growing concern about the role China plays in fuelling the international meth market is also percolating. Currently, much of Chinese production is consumed domestically, but both Japan and South Korea state that most of their methamphetamine comes from the Middle Kingdom.
Large meth busts even farther afield in recent years are also showing a trail leading straight back to China. In January 2012, the Mexican navy announced that a single bust had yielded 195 tons of meth chemicals in a Chinese shipment, following a six-week period that netted an additional 900 tons of precursor chemicals. In February of this year, Australian authorities seized 183 kilograms – worth about US$183 million – hid- den in Chinese kayaks at a Sydney container port. As networks and production facilities become more sophisticated, and because the building materials of meth are so innocent, one can only imagine these numbers are set to increase.