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Illicit drug market booming in China

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All sorts of things can be ordered online in China, but few goods are delivered as fast as ketamine. It takes one hour and $80, said Nine Ice Dragon Room, a dealer on QQ, an online-messaging service, for five grams of Guangdong’s purest "K" to reach an address in central Shanghai.

It is an exchange that reflects the new realities of urban China. Years of urbanization and rising incomes have created a generation of young office workers with the time and money to experiment.

"Meth is cheap heroin," one 29-year-old video producer said. "It’s very popular among white-collar people."

There are more than 2 million registered drug users in China, up from about 70,000 in 1989, but the head of China’s drug-control bureau said that the actual figure is more like 10 million.

Heroin remains the most popular narcotic, accounting for 60 per cent of registered users, but its adoption by new users is declining. Instead people are opting for synthetically manufactured drugs, such as K, ecstasy and methamphetamine. In 2005 nearly 7 per cent of new registered addicts used synthetic drugs, according to China’s National Narcotics Control Commission. By 2013 that had risen to 40 percent.

The spread of the Internet has aided sales. Dealers on QQ or We Chat, a popular smartphone app, have user names that include the characters "pork" for meth, "rice" for ketamine and "ice" for crystal meth.

As China has become the place to manufacture cheaply everything from tennis shoes to iPads to Bibles, so it is with drugs. Clandestine labs produce vast quantities of ketamine and other synthetics which are now fueling a worldwide boom. Some are calling China the newest front in the global war on drugs.

Meth is especially addictive, and also is easily manufactured. It has become the scourge of China’s anti-drug departments and of neighbouring countries. In 2012 Chinese authorities seized 102 million methamphetamine pills, more than double their haul in 2009. Drug busts have assumed cinematic proportions. Last December helicopters, speedboats and 3,000 armed police raided Boshe, a village in the southern province of Guangdong. "Operation Thunder" seized three tons of the drug.

Western governments have trouble keeping up with how to regulate all the new types of drugs. China, with its underdeveloped legal system, finds it even more difficult. That some drugs can be used for legitimate industrial and pharmaceutical purposes — ketamine is an anesthetic, for example — further complicates regulation. As one drug is banned, others, made from similar chemicals, are produced and sold legally. These "legal highs" contain compounds similar to banned narcotics such as mephedrone, a.k.a. "meow meow," and are designed to mimic their effects.

Norman Baker, Britain’s drug minister, recently said that Britain was "in a race against the chemists of new substances being produced, almost on a weekly basis, in places like China and India."

The number of new "psychoactive" substances recorded by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime more than doubled between 2009 and 2013. The worrying part, said Owen Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist at the Club Drug Clinic in London, is that many new synthetics have higher potency than the drugs they emulate, and little is known about the damage they cause.

Hundreds of laboratories clustered around Chinese ports fulfil the orders for "legal highs" from dealers in America and Europe. Global courier services ship the orders.

China also produces many of the chemicals used in banned drugs. In 2012 six shipments of methylamine were intercepted by authorities in Central and North America, totaling more than 28,600 gallons. The substance, when mixed with other chemicals, can produce meth. Nearly all of it originated in China.

Whatever is decided legislatively, young people will continue to take synthetic drugs. Banning them prompts dealers to sell their soon-to-be-illegal stock at cut-rate prices. Then they place new orders with Chinese chemists for novel compounds that can be sold legally in the West.

One supplier, found during a random Web search, claims that she can ship a kilogram of a chemical called 4-MEC to London for US$2,100. Bitcoin is among the payment options. Often sold in Britain under the name NRG2, 4-MEC is a chemical cousin of the now-banned "meow meow."

"Some people say, ‘It is the best thing I’ve ever tried,’ and some of them feel sick," the Web site said in broken English. "But anyway, 4-MEC continuous to be in demand and you can buy 4-MEC right now."

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