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China’s Battle Against Drugs Is Turning Into All-Out War

Chinese authorities released statistics this week that show the country has "punished" hundreds of thousands of drug users and seized tons of narcotics since last October.
Imagen vía Reuters

China released fresh batch of statistics this week that suggest the battle against drugs in the world's most populous country has escalated into a full-fledged war.

According to Chinese officials, since last October more than 600,000 drug users in the country were "punished," another 133,000 were arrested for drug-related crimes, and 43.3 tons of illicit narcotics were seized, a 45 percent increase from the year before.


Assistant Minister of Public Security Liu Yuejin said authorities were trying to "ban drugs in hundreds of cities," and that the country's drug gangs have "suffered a severe blow." Liu said nine police officers have been killed in the crackdown, presumably in confrontations with traffickers.

As with many statistics dealing with drugs in China, there are few details available about the arrests, the types of drugs being used, and the fate of those who have been locked up.

In the past, similar roundups have led to mass detentions and compulsory courses at detoxification centers — a tactic that drug policy experts say rarely yields positive results. A 2008 anti-drug law gave Chinese police broad authority to determine how to proceed in drug cases.

Related: Booze, sex, and the dark art of dealmaking in China

"There is an element of earnestness to it, they are fighting a drug war," John Collins, coordinator of the London School of Economics' International Drug Policy Project, told VICE News. "But rounding up 600,000 people for drug offenses doesn't help anything. This is a disaster."

Collins said China has made some strides in terms of its public health policy, including harm reduction measures, but the country "risks undoing that by taking this war on drugs approach which has been so discredited internationally."

'Rounding up 600,000 people for drug offenses doesn't help anything. This is a disaster.'


China's domestic war on drugs has made it more assertive on the global stage. At a time when the US is belatedly relaxing its insistence that other countries focus on interdiction, China, along with Russia and others, has adopted more hardline policies.

In March, China nearly forced a UN vote that could have made the anesthetic ketamine a globally controlled substance. The drug, which in developed countries is used mostly by veterinarians, is an everyday medicine in poorer regions, where it is often the only painkiller available. China insisted that its domestic problems with the ketamine, which is often mixed with amphetamines, meant the world had to act.

Since most of the ketamine used in China is produced inside the country, Beijing's stance left some diplomats scratching their heads. Faced with a wave of opposition, China put off the vote at the UN's Commission on Narcotics, but did not drop the issue entirely.

At the time, observers pointed out that China was one the largest producers not just of ketamine, but of many of the world's most common pharmaceuticals and chemicals. It wasn't clear if China stood to gain financially from further regulating ketamine, but global seizures of Chinese precursor chemicals used for drug manufacturing suggest the country fuels the global trade of synthetic drugs.

In 2012, Mexican officials stopped a Chinese shipment containing 32 tons of precursors allegedly destined to be used in methamphetamine production. The same year, a shipment of nearly three tons of methylamine chloride, a common but controlled chemical, was seized at Los Angeles International Airport, where authorities it too was destined to be used for meth production in Mexico.


Related: The opium and heroin business is booming in Southeast Asia's 'Golden Triangle'

In many ways, China's drug problem is the world's drug problem, and not the other way around. Regionally, demand from Chinese consumers has fueled poppy production in the lawless Golden Triangle border region between Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. And, despite the major busts, Chinese precursor chemicals used to manufacture cocaine, heroin, meth, and other drugs continue to flow into Latin America.

According to official statistics, heroin is still the number one drug in China. In 2012, the government reported 1.27 million users of opioids, but observers say the true number is likely much higher.

Meanwhile, an increasingly urbanized and wealthy Chinese population has developed a taste for synthetic substances such as ketamine, ecstasy, and methamphetamine. According to UN statistics, China seized the equivalent of 16 tons of methamphetamine in 2012, behind only Mexico and the United States, and a 60 percent rise from only two years prior.

Several high-profile cases — including the August 2014 arrest of actor Jackie Chan's 32-year-old son Jaycee after he tested positive for marijuana — have drawn attention to drug use among China's rich and well connected. Chan's son, who was sentenced to six months in prison, made a televised apology, saying "I set the worst example, which had the most terrible influence." That month, CNN reported that a number of entertainment agencies agreed to banish drug use and to break ties with any talent caught indulging in illicit substances.

China's latest crackdown comes, perhaps not coincidentally, at a time of greater ideological fervor among party officials. Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has pushed for greater conformity in education policies. Last year, he told universities that they had to step up their "ideological and political work."

Related: How Chinese mining companies sustain organized crime in Mexico

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford