China

Emerging trends and concerns

  • A growth in the number of registered drug users, seizures and drug-related arrests indicate that illicit drug use, in particular of synthetic drugs, continues to be on the rise in China.
  • Synthetic drugs continued to be manufactured at a large scale in China in 2015, with the majority of dismantled clandestine laboratories manufacturing crystalline methamphetamine.
  • Transnational organized criminal groups appear to be increasingly targeting China as a source, transit and destination country for illicit drugs. Significant quantities of methamphetamine pills and heroin continue to flow from the Golden Triangle to China.
  • The risk of diversion of precursor chemicals and pharmaceutical preparations used in the illicit manufacture of methamphetamine and other illicit drugs continues to be high in China.
  • Reported drug user data indicate that methamphetamine might have overtaken ketamine as the most widely used synthetic drug in Hong Kong (China). However, substantial amounts of ketamine continue to be seized in Hong Kong (China), and reached a new peak in 2015.

Overview of the drug situation

The use of methamphetamine continues to increase in China1,   particularly among young drug users2.  The illicit manufacture of crystalline methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs such as ketamine continues to be a problem. China is also being increasingly used by transnational criminal syndicates as a source, transit, and destination country for illicit drugs. Significant quantities of precursor chemicals are being diverted by criminal groups for the manufacture of methamphetamine, as well as the manufacture of heroin and cocaine.

Table 1. Trends in use of selected drugs in China, 2011-2015*
* Based on expert perception provided by NNCC, China.

Recent data of registered drug users in China4 indicate increasing use of synthetic drugs in the country5.  Over 80% of newly registered drug users (531,000) in 2015 were using synthetic drugs6, indicating that synthetic drugs may have replaced opiates as the primary drug group of concern in the country. The proportion of synthetic drug users among all registered drug users7 has been on the rise in the country in recent years from 33% in 2011 to 57% in 2015. By the end of 2015, there were nearly 2.4 million registered drug users in China8

Figure 1. Proportion of registered drug users by type of drug used in China, 2011 – 2015
Source(s): NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2016”, March 2016; NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Beijing, China, 16-17 September 2015.

A large number of clandestine synthetic drug manufacturing facilities are dismantled each year in China, most of which manufacture crystalline methamphetamine or ketamine. In 2015, a total of 593 illicit manufacturing facilities were dismantled, representing an 8 % increase compared to the preceding year (551 laboratories)9.  The majority (433) of the seized laboratories were manufacturing methamphetamine, followed by ketamine10.  Most seizures of clandestine drug laboratories took place in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces. For instance, in 2015, 230 laboratories were seized in Guangdong province and 150 were seized in Sichuan province, accounting for approximately 64% of the total number of illicit manufacturing facilities dismantled in that year11.  A total of 125 drug manufacturing facilities were dismantled during the first half of 201612.

In 2015, there were 431 cases related to illicit manufacture of precursor chemicals. These resulted in seizures of about 1,566 mt of various substances, including 146.7 mt of ephedra herb13.  In addition, Chinese authorities stopped 38 shipments of precursor chemicals from the country, with a total quantity of 105.8 mt of various substances14

In recent years, substantial amounts of methamphetamine have been seized in China. In 2015, a total of 35.7 mt of methamphetamine in pill and crystalline form were seized, representing a 38% increase compared to 2014 (25.9 mt) and nearly a 90% increase compared to 2013 (19.5 mt)15.  The Golden Triangle remains the major source for seized methamphetamine pills in the country. For instance, in 2015, seizures of methamphetamine pills in four provinces in the southwestern part of China adjoining the Golden Triangle accounted for 93% of total methamphetamine pill seizures16

The quantity of ketamine seized in China continues to rise. Multi-ton seizures of ketamine have been reported each year since 200717.  In 2015, a total of 19.6 mt of ketamine were seized, marking a 75% increase over 2014 (11.2 mt)18.  While ketamine is manufactured in China by the pharmaceutical industry for legitimate medical purposes, significant quantities are manufactured illicitly in clandestine laboratories, with 90 illicit ketamine laboratories dismantled in 201419  and 118 laboratories dismantled in 201320.  The non-medical (recreational) use of ketamine is indicated to have increased in each of the past six years in China.

In recent years, the Government of China has taken measures to restrict the availability of NPS. In 2015, the Government of China placed 116 substances under control. The newly scheduled NPS include 39 synthetic cannabinoids (among them several JWH- and AM-compounds; 5F-AB-PINACA; 5F-ADBICA and AB-CHIMINACA), 26 synthetic cathinones (such as Butylone; α-PVP; Pentedrone and Ethcathinone) and 23 phenethylamines (including several NBOMe and 2C-compounds; 4-FA and 5-APDB) as well as other substances including several synthetic opioids21

Table 2. Seizures of selected drugs in China, 2011-2015
● = Not reported. a Figures reported other than the number of pills converted into estimated pill equivalents at 100 mg per pill. b Figures reported other than the number of pills converted into estimated pill equivalents at 300 mg per pill. c, d Includes cannabis herb and cannabis resin.
Source(s): DAINAP; ARQ China for 2014; NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2011”, Beijing, 2011; Official communication with NNCC, July 2011; Official communication with NNCC, October 2013; Official communication with NNCC, October 2014; Official communication with NNCC, November 2015; NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at the Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Beijing, China, 16-17 September 2015; NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Situation in China 2016”, March 2016; Official communication with NNCC, April 2016.    

The vast majority (97%) of crystalline methamphetamine samples (n=2,762) anaysed in China in 2015 had purities higher than 80%22.  By comparison, approximately 93% of methamphetamine pill samples (n=2,404) analyzed in the country in the same year contained less than 20% methamphetamine, with typical weights ranging between 88 mg and 92 mg per pill. The content of methamphetamine typically ranged between 15% and 17%23.   


Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region of China)

Recent data seems to indicate that drug use in Hong Kong (China), based on the number of reported drug users, is on the decline. In 2015, the total number of reported drug users was 8,598, a 5 % decrease compared with 2014 (9,059) and a 17% decrease from 2013 (10,241)24

Although these figures show a downward trend in recent years, crystalline methamphetamine use and seizure data suggest that the methamphetamine market continues to expand in Hong Kong. In the past four years, the number of crystalline methamphetamine users has grown every year from 1,532 users in 2011 to 2,195 in 2015, an increase of 43%25.  In 2015, the number of reported methamphetamine users was for the first time higher than that of ketamine users (1,974) thus elevating crystalline methamphetamine to the status of a drug of concern in Hong Kong (China) while heroin continued to be the most commonly reported drug of use.

The typical retail price of 1 gram of crystalline methamphetamine in 2014 was estimated at approximately USD 58, a significant decrease compared to 2013 (USD 86)26.  Given the increasing number of reported crystalline methamphetamine users and seized amounts of the drug, the decrease in the typical price could possibly be due to an increasing availability of the drug. However, purity-adjusted prices were not available to confirm this hypothesis.

Figure 2. The number of reported crystalline methamphetamine and ketamine users in Hong Kong (China), 2011 – 2015
Source: Narcotics Division, Security Bureau (NDSB), “Newly/previously reported drug abusers by age group by common type of drugs abused (T3)” (Accessed at http://www.nd.gov.hk/text/en/stat/statistics_list.htm).

Seizures of crystalline methamphetamine have also been on the rise in recent years. For instance, record amounts of crystalline methamphetamine were seized in Hong Kong (China) in the last two years with 488 kg and 356 kg respectively in 2014 and 2015. Almost all crystalline methamphetamine seized in Hong Kong (China) reportedly originated from mainland China with significant amounts meant for onward trafficking to other countries in East Asia and the Pacific27.  For instance, in 2014 law enforcement authorities in Hong Kong (China) seized a total of 104 kg of crystalline methamphetamine from five transit express cargo consignments from China, all of which were destined for Malaysia28.

Ketamine remains a concern in Hong Kong (China), notwithstanding indications that its use may be on the decline. For instance, the number of reported ketamine users decreased by 46% over the last five years, from 3,600 persons in 2011 to 1,974 persons in 2015 (see Figure 2)29.  However, substantial quantities of ketamine were seized in 2015 in Hong Kong (China), amounting to 660 kg, the second highest total reported during the last decade30.  The increase in ketamine seizures in 2015 might be a the result of a reported increase in ketamine trafficked from mainland China, where record amounts of the drug (19.6 mt) were seized in that year, to other countries, using Hong Kong as a transit location.

Table 3. Seizures of selected drugs in Hong Kong, China, 2011-2015
Source(s): Official communication with Hong Kong Police Force (HKNB), September 2016. 

In recent years, a number of new psychoactive substances (NPS) have been identified in Hong Kong (China) which is believed to be a transit location for NPS shipments31.  For instance, in 2014 a total of 226 kg of synthetic cathinones were seized in Hong Kong (China), and a large majority of them were destined for other countries - in particular to the United States32.  Though the use of these NPS in Hong Kong (China) appears to be limited, there is a risk of increasing use due to ‘spillover’ effects considering the amounts of NPS trafficked through the territory.  

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1 Figures for “China” in this chapter do not include data for the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macao, and Taiwan Province of China. Data for Hong Kong (China) is reported separately below.

2 According to the National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC), as of the end of 2015, there were 2.345 million registered drug users in China and about 61% of them were between the ages of 18 and 35 years.  

3 “Ecstasy” pills sold as ecstasy in China may contain substances other than MDMA.

4 China includes ketamine in the synthetic drug category along with amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS).

5 UNODC, Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQ) China for 2014.

6 Ibid.

7 Registered drug users are persons who have come into contact with law enforcement authorities.

8 NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2016”, March 2016.

9 Ibid; NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at the Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Vientiane, Lao PDR, 30-31 August, 2016.

10 Official communication with NNCC, the Ministry of Public Security, November 2015.

11 NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Beijing, China, 16-17 September 2015.

12 NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at the Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Vientiane, Lao PDR, 30-31 August, 2016.

13 NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Situation in China 2016”, March 2016. 

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid; NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Beijing, China, 16-17 September 2015.

16 NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Situation in China 2016”, March 2016. 

17 DAINAP; NNCC, “Ketamine abuse and illicit manufacture”, presented at Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Beijing, China, 16-17 September 2015.

18 Ibid; NNCC, “Annual Report on Drug Situation in China 2016”, March 2016. 

19 Ibid.

20 Official communication with NNCC, November 2015; NNCC, “Current Drug Situation and Trends of ATS in China”, presented at the Eighteenth Asia-Pacific Operational Drug Enforcement Conference (ADEC), Tokyo, 26-27 February 2014.

21 UNODC, Early Warning Advisory on NPS, https://www.unodc.org/LSS/Announcement?type=NPS (Accessed on Jan 2016); For further information, please see http://www.sfda.gov.cn/WS01/CL0056/130753.html.  

22 DAINAP.

23 NNCC, “Latest situation of synthetic drugs in China”, presented at the Global SMART Programme regional meeting, Vientiane, Lao PDR, 30-31 August, 2016.

24 Narcotics Division, Security Bureau (NDSB), “Newly/previously reported drug abusers by age group by common type of drugs abused (T3)” (Accessed at http://www.nd.gov.hk/en/statistics_list.htm)

25 Ibid. See figure 2.

26 Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQ) Hong Kong (China) for 2013 and 2014.

27 UNODC, Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQ) Hong Kong (China) for 2014.

28 Ibid.

29 Narcotics Division, Security Bureau (NDSB), “Newly/previously reported drug abusers by age group by common type of drugs abused (T3)” (Accessed at http://www.nd.gov.hk/text/en/stat/statistics_list.htm).

30 Hong Kong Police Force (HKNB), Crime Statistics Comparison 2014-2015. (Accessed at http://www.police.gov.hk/ppp_en/09_statistics/csc.html).     

31 For the purposes of this report, the analysis of NPS includes ketamine, which differs from other NPS in that it is widely used in human and veterinary medicine, while most NPS have little or no history of medical use.

32 Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQ) Hong Kong (China) for 2013 and 2014.