Illegal drugs from China 'easily available'

It has emerged as a major global supplier amid poor law enforcement

SHANGHAI - Ordering illegal drugs from China is as easy as typing on a keyboard.

On guidechem.com, more than 150 Chinese companies sell alpha- PVP, also known as flakka, a stimulant that is illegal in the United States but not in China, and was blamed for 18 recent deaths in one Florida county.

The e-commerce portal Qinjiayuan sells air-conditioners, trampolines and a banned hallucinogen known as spice, which set off a devastating spike in US emergency room visits in April.

CIRCUMVENTING THE LAW

I can handle this for you legally or illegally. How much do you want?

- A company salesman, when asked about shipping a banned stimulant overseas from China

The stimulant mephedrone, sometimes sold as "bath salts", is banned in China but readily for sale at Nanjing Takanobu Chemical for about US$1,400 (S$1,900) a pound (454g). "I can handle this for you legally or illegally," a company salesman said by phone when asked about shipping the product overseas from China. "How much do you want?"

In a country that has perfected the art of Internet censorship, the open online drug market is a blatant example of what international law enforcement officials say is China's reluctance to take action since it has emerged as a major player in the global supply chain for synthetic drugs. "They just didn't see what was in it for them to look into their own industries exporting these chemicals," said former Mexican ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo.

China's chemical factories and drug traffickers have exploited this opportunity, turning the nation into a leading producer and exporter of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine, as well as the compounds used to manufacture them, according to seizure and trafficking route data compiled by US and global law enforcement agencies.

China is now the source of a majority of the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine by Mexican drug traffickers, who produce 90 per cent of the meth consumed in the US, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. At the same time, clandestine Chinese labs manufacture and export their own meth and other synthetic drugs around the world.

In 2013, the police dismantled nearly 390 meth labs in China, according to a United Nations report released last month. These manufacturers have flourished in part because the country's huge chemical industry is weakly regulated and poorly monitored, officials say, making it easy for criminals to divert chemicals with legitimate uses in making medicine, fertiliser and pesticides into the production of new and dangerous drugs.

The labs have also figured out how to stay one step ahead of laws banning illicit synthetic drugs simply by tweaking a few molecules, creating new and not- yet-illegal drugs.

Several US officials said China was the primary source for new synthetic drugs. "Hands down China is No. 1," said a federal law enforcement official, who was not authorised to speak publicly.

Ms Carla Freedman, an assistant district attorney in New York who in 2013 prosecuted a ring trafficking drugs from Shanghai, said: "We're seeing cases nationwide and ground zero always seems to be China."

Mr Hao Wei, a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Committee for Prevention of Synthetic Drug Abuse, said traffickers would always find loopholes. "I really don't think only governments should be blamed for this," he said in a telephone interview. "Instead of pointing fingers at each other, we should confront the problem and deal with it in a comprehensive and balanced way."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Illegal drugs from China 'easily available''. Print Edition | Subscribe