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China's war on drugs

Cherie ChanFebruary 26, 2016

Despite Beijing's efforts to tackle the country's drug problem, official reports show that illicit drug abuse is on the rise among young Chinese. DW examines the social and economic reasons behind this issue.

China Drogensüchtiger raucht Opium
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

"The drug situation in China remains severe and complicated. It will continue to expand, and narcotics enforcement will come under tremendous pressure and face grave challenges for a long time to come." These are the words of Liu Yuejin, vice commissioner of China National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC), speaking to reporters on February 18 about his organization's latest report on the drug situation in the world's most populous country.

The document shows that in 2015 there was a significant increase in the number of illicit drug users under the age of 35, with the group accounting for 60 percent of the total number of registered drug users in the East Asian country.

Furthermore, their selection of drugs has shifted from heroin to synthetic drugs. Among the 531,000 "newly registered drug users," more than 80 percent were using amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) such as methamphetamine (meth), ecstasy and also the anesthetic ketamine, said the government report.

Domestic production

A 2015 report by the Washington-based Brookings Institute had already pointed to this development, stating that the total amount of drugs seized in China had been on a steady increase over the years.

Bildergalerie Megacities Shanghai
With increasing income inequality and job competition, more Chinese turn to drugs for stress relief, analysts sayImage: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

"Our field observation and interviews with community informants corroborate the official claims that these amphetamine-type stimulants are mostly consumed by groups of youth, and often found in night clubs and karaoke bars," the paper added.

A key factor behind this is the wide availability of synthetic drugs in the country, said one of the paper's authors, Sheldon Zhang, who is also a professor at the Department of Sociology of San Diego State University.

"There is an abundant supply of the raw materials used to manufacture ATS. It is fairly easy to produce in large quantities, compared to organic plants such as coca leaves or opium poppies," Zhang told DW.

In fact, the NNCC report also shows evidence of just how much of these synthetic drugs are produced in China. Last year, 77 percent of the 102.5 tons of drugs seized were domestically made, including meth and ketamine.

And access to these drugs is facilitated by the country's technological development, says Tingting Shen, director of advocacy, research, and policy at Asia Catalyst, an NGO campaigning for rights of marginalized groups such as drug uses and sex workers.

Economic development

"China's good Internet infrastructure along with the widespread use of smartphones, make purchasing drugs online very easy," Shen told DW, adding that the country's rapid economic development has also contributed to the increase in demand by young Chinese.

"Higher incomes and a much less controlled society have enabled young people to have more time, resources and freedom to explore new things," Shen said.

Professor Zhang agrees, pointing to what young city dwellers associate synthetic drugs with. "Stimulants are more preferred by urbanites and typically consumed in night clubs or group settings, hence they are considered more fun and hip, compared to sedatives such as heroin," said the expert.

However, Zhang also believes that the downside of economic growth has led many Chinese to succumb to the addiction for stress relief.

"Income inequality, increasing job competition, and chaotic urban living conditions have created ample situations where some people feel stimulated and look for alternatives to get high and feel different. Others do it because they feel intense pressure to succeed or survive," the professor said.

Lack of psychological support

President Xi Jinping reacted to the growing problem, vowing last June that there would be no rest until China won on the war on drugs. Traditionally, the authorities have adopted severe punishment as a deterrent. For instance, Chinese law states that crimes such as smuggling, selling, transporting or manufacturing more than 50 grams of heroin or meth can be punished with life imprisonment, or even the death penalty.

China Smartphone in Taiyuan
The widespread use of smartphones makes it easier to buy drugs onlineImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Liu Jiang

However, analysts such as Zhang argue that such draconian measures are ineffective, as shown by the still thriving number of drug users in the country.

Moreover, analysts are critical of how the authorities deal with drug addicts. The main model applied in China over the past decades includes compulsory detoxification and lengthy periods of detention - practices which activist Shen views as lacking the appropriate psychological support.

"Many people are sent to these centers with no appropriate medical or psychological examination. They also fail to receive adequate assessment and diagnosis of their drug use," the activist said. "Treatment is generally restricted to detoxification and abstinence-based approaches that are not voluntary," added Shen.

A different approach?

But experts point out Beijing has been gradually changing its approach to combat the drug problem. "In recent years, China has gradually shifted its emphasis from a 'harsh punishment' to a 'harm reduction' approach, stressing rehabilitation and corrections," professor Zhang said.

China World Internet Conference Xi Jinping
President Xi Jinping has vowed there would be no rest until China won a sweeping victory in the war on drugsImage: Reuters/A. Song

By the end of 2014, China had a total of 767 methadone maintenance treatment clinics set up in 28 provinces. "The Chinese government has been making great efforts to scale up these treatment clinics, providing substitutes and treatment to heroin users," said Shen.

Nonetheless, the current 'harm reduction' programs are ineffective in addressing the challenges faced by new drug users, the activist claims. "Very few programs and efforts are directed towards synthetic drug users. While the government has been educating young people about the harm caused by heroin, many Chinese remain unaware of the damage synthetic drugs can inflict."