Up in Smoke: An Overview of Drug Usage and Policy in China

Up in Smoke: An Overview of Drug Usage and Policy in China
Dec 29, 2012 By Elaine Pang , eChinacities.com

Mention drugs and China in the same breath and images of smoky opium dens a la Chinese period dramas are likely to spring to mind. Barring the Opium Wars, China is hardly a country typically associated with rampant drug use. Strict enforcement during the initial days of communist rule subsequently obliterated blatant drug use in China. However, various drug-related executions turn the spotlight on drug usage and policy in China. Moreover, China’s geographic proximity to the Asian Golden Triangle, history, population, size and economic conditions are factors that have shaped drug usage and trade throughout history.

Up in Smoke: An Overview of Drug Usage and Policy in China
Photo: guardian.co.uk

Opium and the Middle Kingdom

Opium was already known and prescribed since the eighth century as a traditional Chinese remedy for diarrhea and other maladies, a practice which continues still today. By 1500 AD, the Chinese had started refining opium rather than consuming raw seeds. Opium’s value rose to the extent that hill tribes in South China farmed it to pay off taxes to the Han government. Prior to the introduction of smoking tobacco from the Americas in the 16th century, opium was either eaten or drunk, both in Asia and Europe.

Large-scale importation of opium to China from Britain began in the 1760s. Other significant opium sources were American ships from Turkey. By the 1830s, substantial quantities of opium were already being produced domestically. But the British import was still preferred in opium dens by Chinese, rich and poor. Opium became the new medium of exchange and the primary means of reducing Britain’s growing trade deficit with a China that had no appetite for other British exports. Then followed the two Opium Wars, the first of which was fought in 1839 to 1842.

Viewed as a source of humiliation to China, the Opium Wars resulted in Hong Kong, among other territories, being ceded to the British. The catalyst ending the reign of dynasties began the tumultuous transition toward Mao’s reign. Drug usage, an estimated 2-3 million citizens in 1949, was wiped out virtually overnight through draconian measures, including executions. However, China’s incrasingly liberal stance towards trade in the 1980s had the unintended effect of reversing Mao’s anti-drug efforts during the 40 years of relative isolation.

Globalisation and the rising drug trade

Drug trade and usage has evolved significantly since then. As trade with Southeast Asia and elsewhere boomed, so did the flow of drugs and precursor chemicals. Sadly, the lucrative narcotic market knows no geographical boundaries, with money as the common language of business. An Internet search of drug-related information with respect to China is likely to yield reports of involvement in every stage of the supply chain in the global drug trade. Several factors account for this, namely geography, economics and agriculture.

Geography: China shares a 2,000 km border with neighbouring Burma, as well as smaller but significant borders with Vietnam and Laos, so its fate is inextricably linked with the Golden Triangle. At the same time, the rapid modernization of infrastructure for overland transportatation has facilitated the flow of narcotics from the Golden Triangle to China’s expanding ports in the southwest (such as Fujian and Guangzhou) and the northeast (such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Qingdao) for re-export.

Economics: Over the past several decades, China has become a major source of precursor chemicals for both pharmaceuticals and for illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and crystal methamphetamine—much of which is bound for Southeast Asian and Pacfic Rim nations. On the demand side, burgeoning wealth in China attracts sellers of all kinds of goods, including drugs.

Agriculture: Apart from government-controlled cultivation of Ephedra grass and Opium for pharmaceutical purposes, opium is illicitly cultivated in provinces like Yunnan and Inner Mongolia for local consumption by ethnic minorities. In addition, cannabis grows naturally in southwestern China and is licitly cultivated in some places.

Drug usage, legislation and rehabilitation efforts

Drug-related reportings in China can hardly be expected to be forthcoming, but official statistics have sporadically admitted that drug usage is on the rise. In particular, present-day openness to trade appears to have had the unwanted side-effect of fuelling the domestic narcotics market, with heroin remaining the most consumed drug among addicts in China. Other major drugs include morphine, smokable opium, crystal methamphetamine and MDMA.

Owing to Mao’s legacy, China still has tough drug laws. The smuggling of 50 grams or more of any narcotic carries a death penalty. Amnesty International estimates drug-related executions number at least 500 each year. In fact, gunfights are not uncommon along the Burma-China border, as traffickers deem the chances of surviving it higher than the outcome of any legal proceedings.

Treatment for drug addiction in China is either voluntary or compulsory, the latter being more often the case. Recalcitrant addicts can be sent to rehabilitated at special centers by re-education through labour. Public Health Bureaus also offer voluntary treatments, but costs are prohibitive to most.

Drug trafficking

High potential for profits drive dealers to resort to every imaginable means to move goods, including using pregnant women, foreigners, minors and those with infectious diseases as drug runners. Traffickers are well aware that pregnant or breastfeeding women cannot be put in detention centres, a loophole they use to their advantage. Another alarming trend is that traffickers are increasingly armed and willing to openly fight checkpoint officers. Weapons of choice include knives, guns and even chainsaws.

Filipinos are a favourite target for traffickers looking for mules. The Philippines serves as a transition point for drugs. According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, of the 89 Filipinos on death-row worldwide for drug-related offences, 79 are held in Chinese jails. Couriers are usually the poor or young professionals lured by monetary and other forms of compensation such as free travel.

Foreigners convicted of drug-related offenses followed with frenzied but predictably unheeded pleas for clemency are often news-making headlines. Drug traffickers from Britain, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan have been executed in China. The 2009 execution of British citizen, Akmal Shaikh, for smuggling 4 kg of heroin, sparked fierce condemnation from Britain and the world. Human-rights issues aside, this case attracted both media and diplomatic attention right up to the last moment owing to the fact that the defendant had a mental illness.

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Keywords: China drug usage China drug history China drug policy

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