The man, who was not identified, had been caught at the airport of the southern city of Guilin in 2008, carrying 1.5 kilograms of heroin from Malaysia. Smuggling more than 50 grams of heroin carries the death penalty in China.
The execution drew fresh attention to China’s growing drug problem. The number of officially registered addicts has doubled over the past decade to 1.5 million, according to police figures, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Experts say the real number of addicts is likely to be at least 7.5 million.
Most alarming, drug policy experts say, is the rapidly rising popularity of amphetamine type stimulants such as methamphetamine, ecstasy and ketamine, which appeal particularly to young people under 25.
“Almost all new addicts appear to be addicted to synthetic drugs,” says Xia Guomei, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “They are younger and more affluent than traditional heroin addicts.”
About two thirds of Chinese drug addicts, however, still use heroin; China, which borders the two largest opium and heroin producing countries in the world – Afghanistan and Myanmar – has become not just a transit route to other international drug markets, but a consumption center itself.
China has become “an important nexus in the narcotics trade, both as a consumer, as a transit route, and a source for the export of precursor chemicals” to Myanmar and Afghanistan, according to a 2006 paper by Niklas Swanstrom, a security expert at Uppsala university in Sweden.
Though the bulk of synthetic drugs consumed in China comes from the “Golden Triangle” where Northern Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet, “drug production in China itself is a serious issue; chemically synthesized drug production is developing very rapidly,” according to this year’s report by the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission.
Police found and destroyed 378 drug factories last year, the report said, arrested 101,000 suspects in trafficking cases and seized 5.3 tons of heroin, 9.9 tons of methamphetamine and 4.9 tons of ketamine.
Chinese drug users were once sent to forced labor camps, but a 2008 law decriminalizing drug use introduced what the Narcotics Control Commission said would be “human-centered principles.”
In reality, the police-run “compulsory rehabilitation centers” to which drug users are often sent on their second offense are little more than forced labor camps under another name, Human Rights Watch charged in a report last year. The centers, where drug users can be held for up to six years with no judicial oversight, provide little or no medical help nor psychological assistance, and no preparation for re-entry into society, the report found.
“The centers are not very useful for addicts,” agrees Ms. Xia. “They might quit their habit physically, but when they go home they are still psychologically addicted and return to their old social milieux.”
The scourge of opium, which held millions of Chinese in its thrall for a hundred years, means that “there is strong moral and legal pressure against drug use in China,” Xia adds. “Society is very intolerant of it.”