Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Illicit drug market booming in China

  • Print

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."

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - Four Little Games

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A goose cools off Thursday in water at Omands Creek Park-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 25– June 21, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Aerial view of Portage and Main, The Esplanade Riel, Provencher Bridge over the Red River, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and The Forks near the Assiniboine River, October 21st, 2011. (TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) CMHR

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google