China has admitted that more than 14 million people or about one percent of the country’s massive population has used drugs. It has also disclosed for the first time that drug use has spread to as much as 90 percent of the country's cities, districts and counties.
Chinese authorities are also finding it increasingly difficult to point fingers at traditional suppliers - such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar - because China itself is a major producer.
Chinese factories are churning out hundreds of thousands tons of synthetic drugs while some of its farmers have even taken to opium production at home, according to a report released by China’s National Narcotics Control Commission earlier this week.
The release of the report came just days before International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which is marked on Friday June 26.
The dire situation is complicated by rising demand for drugs among youth, increasing manufacture of synthetic drugs, changing supply routes and use of Internet for marketing and sales, according to the report.
"The continuous upgrading and change in drug trafficking approaches is making drug prevention and crackdown even more difficult," said Liu Yuejin, deputy director of the drug commission.
Staggering though it might seem, drug experts suspect China is still underestimating the problem.
“The official figures provided by the Chinese government about drug use, have always been on the low end,” said Martin Jelsma, an expert with the Drugs & Democracy Program of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI). “In the past they were based on amounts of registered drug users, which obviously only represent a small proportion of the total amount of people who use drugs.”
In the report, China said nearly three million people are registered drug users, but estimated that more than 14 million had used drugs.
China has long taken a tough approach to combatting drug use, focusing largely on harsh penalties instead of looking at the underlying social and economic issues driving drug use. Despite new efforts to crack down on the problem, drug use continues to rise, particularly among women and young people.
The number of identified and "registered" drug users rose by nearly 20 percent from 2.47 million in 2013 to 2.95 million last year. Authorities estimated the total number of users, including unregistered ones, at 14 million.
Much of the increase was among users of synthetic drugs who are usually young men and women in their 20s and 30s, observers said.
"In the past, Chinese women had only one role as housewives. Now many of them [are in] a different life as workers and frequent visitors to bars and Karaoke booths. They are also very stressed. Some of them feel drugs can release their stress," said Keki Liu, an official with a women's association.
Researchers Sheldon X. Zhang of San Diego State University and Ko-lin Chin of Rutgers University, who examined China's drug problem, said, "China needs to establish a reliable drug market forecast system, which combines chemical composition analysis, reports and urine tests of arrested drug abusing offenders, and community informants on illicit drug use trends and pricing information."
They also suggested that China “accelerate its experiment with the decriminalization of substance abuse and apply a public health approach to the treatment of addicts."
Last year, Chinese authorities destroyed 4.36 million illegal poppy plants after using satellites to survey nearly half a million square kilometers of "potential drug planting areas." And according to official statistics opium growing has spread across seven provinces and marijuana or cannabis is grown in 25 of the country's 31 provinces.
This is a new revelation for international drug researchers, who see it as a sign that the Chinese illegal drug industry has found ways to sustain itself even if foreign supplies are cut off.
"The mention of an increase in home-made heroin is new and intriguing: the reality of a shortage of good quality heroin on the Chinese illicit market has often been mentioned, and it has puzzled drug market researchers including TNI why not more of the Afghan over-production found its way to fill the Chinese gap," said the Transnational Institute's Jelsma.
China's Biggest Drug Worry
But traditional drugs such as heroin are not China’s biggest problem. The country’s biggest challenge is the surging growth of synthetic drug use and production. Last year 80 percent of the country’s new registered drug users were those addicted to synthetic substances.
And that is what is worrying officials the most.
"Compared with taking traditional drugs, such as heroin and opium, using methamphetamine can easily bring on mental problems," Liu said. "The addicts find it difficult to control themselves and are prone to extreme and violent acts, including murder, kidnapping and injuring others."
Health ministry officials have said that between January and September of last year, more than 100 cases of violent crimes across 14 of China’s provinces, were linked to methanphetamine abuse, exceeding the total number of cases over the previous five years.
And the problem of synthetic drugs is not just domestic - it reaches far beyond China’s borders. China is a major world producer of synthetic drugs, and is coming under increased pressure from other countries including the U.S. to stop exports of chemcials used to manufacture them.
China has begun to face up to role it plays in the international drug market but in a more subdued manner. In the National Narcotics Control Commission’s report details about precursor chemicals seized by authorities was placed at the end of a section on 'Sources of drugs'. The report said authorities stopped the export of 32 batches of chemicals totaling nearly 6,000 tons.
It remains unclear why China has not been able to effectively switch off supplies of precursor chemicals that go into the production of synthetic drugs. But there are signs that authorities are changing tactics.
China has begun to discuss the problem in a transparent manner and taking the people into confidence about the enormity of the problem instead of limiting its focus to the so-called “People's War on Drugs” to officials.
"Under the pressures of rampant drug smuggling and strong domestic market demand, China is facing the grim task of curbing synthetic drugs, which young addicts increasingly use," Liu said.