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How Methamphetamines Replaced Heroin As China's New Drug Of Choice

Smuggled in from Burma and North Korea, meth is flooding Chinese mean streets.

The dark corners of China
The dark corners of China
Harold Thibault

RUILI – At 38 Ruijing Street in the small town of Ruili, in the southwest Yunnan province, there is a constant flow of drug addicts coming and going.

Under the watchful eye of a dozen prostitutes waiting for their clients, an addict enters this rundown house every three minutes. Shidian, 22, comes out with doses of bingdu, a methamphetamine known in the West as "crystal meth" or "ice" for its crystalline texture.

"I started using two or three years ago. In Ruili, its cheaper," says the young man.

The Yunnan province in southwestern China, near the border with Burma (Myanmar), was once known for its booming heroin trade. Today, methamphetamines have taken over the market, as synthetic drugs grow more popular in the country.

In 2011, 65% of Chinese addicts were heroin users, down 13% since 2008. According to the National Drug Control Commission, methamphetamine users now make up 23% of addicts, up from 9% in 2008.

These synthetic drugs are mostly used by youths – nearly 70% of users are under 35 – who are trying hard drugs for the first time. Many start with methamphetamines then turn to ecstasy and ketamine – drugs once reserved to the rich customers of Hong Kong clubs and that are now making strides to mainland China.

In Ruili, bingdu crystals (bingdu literally means “ice drug”) cost about five yuan (80 cents) a dose. The average wage in this region is about 830 yuan ($133). Shidian doesn’t have a job. He borrows money from his girlfriend to pay for his daily dose – up to 100 yuan ($16). The further away from the Burmese border, the higher the price of methamphetamine. He would pay three times that amount in Baoshan, his hometown 250 kilometers east of Ruili, and much more in Shanghai or Beijing.

"In bars, young people are introduced to bingdu by their friends. It’s for recreational use at first," says Zhang Yongan, director of the center for anti-drug policy studies at Shanghai University. "That explains why its popularity rose so fast in rich cities. Meanwhile, heroin remains the drug of choice of marginalized rural Chinese or migrant workers living on the outskirts of urban areas."

Wang Yaqing has seen this evolution in Xuanwei, a southwestern city of 1.2 million people. She heads an organization that helps drug addicts and finds the lack of prevention policies regrettable. "I’ve never seen a bingdu addict get clean, because most refuse to admit its effects are lethal."

In her town, information about the dramatic consequences of methamphetamine use is limited to a once-a-year awareness "open day" organized by the police, as well as posters with standardized messages like "Fighting the war of the people against drugs." The volunteer activist sees the new Internet cafes and gaming arcades as another sign of the growing influence of bingdu. "When an addict smokes he feels a strong euphoria. The next day, he’s exhausted but still unable to sleep so he spends time in front of a computer screen or an arcade game."

Dealers know they’re unlikely to get caught because the police are mostly trained to fight heroin use. "Before, heroin was as easy to buy as Chinese cabbage but now to find some, you need to have good contacts – while bingdu is available everywhere," says Wang. Five police cars drove by Ruijing Street that evening, and more over the next three days but none stopped at number 38.

Criminal networks capitalize

Burma isn’t the only source for drugs. Methamphetamines in northeastern China usually comes from North Korea. It’s unclear whether Korean bingdu is produced by organized crime gangs or if the Korean government is directly involved. "Beijing must have an idea but the issue is too embarrassing. For geopolitical reasons, China supports North Korea on the international stage. It also supports Burma. Either directly or by negligence, these two neighbors supply the “ice” affecting its population," explains a Chinese researcher.

The growing demand is pushing some networks to localize part of their production in China. Authorities say they shut down 244 underground labs in 2008, 378 in 2010, mostly producing methamphetamines. "For criminal organizations, setting up labs in China is logical because the country has become a major market. And the pharmaceutical elements that are needed to make these synthetic drugs are easily found there," says Gary Lewis, from the UN bureau against drugs and criminality in the East-Asia/Pacific region.

In Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, authorities are trying to restrict access to pseudoephedrine, a basic element in the production of "crystal meth." A tough job as it is the most popular cold remedy.

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