China saw a sharp increase in the production of synthetic drugs in 2016, including the precursor ingredients used to make many of the so-called legal highs that wind up being exported to Europe, a top drug official said today.
Vice Director of the China National Narcotics Control Commission Liu Yuejin told reporters that seizures of methamphetamine, ketamine and other synthetic drugs rose by 106% last year. The AFP news agency quoted Liu as saying that domestic production of these substances reached “severe” levels in 2016, and that many continued to be exported out of the country. He said China’s drug problem is growing at a fast pace, and that drug-producing areas had expanded rapidly.
China has long been one of largest global suppliers of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and the precursor chemicals that are needed to make them, resulting in growing international pressure on Beijing to clampdown on the problem.
In a report published last year, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warned that China had “become the chemical and pharmaceutical wholesaler and retailer to the world”, with many companies in the country producing deadly NPS products legally before shipping them out to customers the West.
The EMCDDA also noted that European organised crime groups were importing huge quantities of the precursor chemicals required to produce so-called legal highs from firms in China, which sell the substances openly on the internet. Once in Europe, the substances are processed and packaged to be sold on, often with the help of equipment also made in the People’s Republic. In a report issued jointly with Europol last year, the EMCDDA said 100 new NPS drugs were reported in Europe in 2015, and that the EU Early Warning System was monitoring more than 560.
Producers of the drugs have been able to stay one step ahead of legislators by tweaking the chemical composition of the substances they make as soon as they are outlawed, forcing law makers into a game of cat and mouse in which NPS manufacturers are always able to out manoeuvre the law.
The UK government took steps to break this stalemate in May last year with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which effectively banned all psychoactive substances, barring a list of exceptions including alcohol, tobacco and medicinal products, which remain legal but highly regulated. Since the introduction of the ban, concerns have been raised that it has merely served to push the problem underground, with NPS use now widespread among vulnerable groups such as the homeless and prisoners, who are able to smuggle the drugs into UK jails with astonishing ease.
While the UK ban may have removed so-called legal highs from the headshops and British websites that used to sell them, they are still widely available from illegal street dealers, by mail order from countries where they have not been outlawed, and from dark web marketplaces accessible via technology such as the anonymous Tor browser.
In spite of the ban, British media outlets now regularly feature shocking reports of NPS users wandering around the streets in zombie-like states after smoking potent cannabinoids such as Spice, which are designed to mimic the effects of cannabis, but are often considerably stronger than the skunk variant of marijuana that is now most widely available in the UK today.
Due to their relatively low cost, legal highs are most commonly used by people from lower socioeconomic groups, who find the substances more affordable than traditional illicit drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, or even cannabis. Many people who have been addicted to drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin who make the switch to NPS often tell medical workers that legal highs are a lot tougher to quit and cause considerably more physical and psychological harm than the substances they previously took.
Speaking with the Sunday Times newspaper earlier this month, the US scientist who created synthetic cannabinoids said he is horrified that his research has been used to create legal highs, and called on governments around the world to outlaw the substances.
Discussing the immense amount of damage NPS drugs do from his home in North Carolina, John Huffman told the paper: “I was experimenting for good. What they should do now – and it would be up to assorted governments – is the synthetic compounds should be made vigorously illegal and marijuana should be legalised. Could I have known [that my work would be used to create so-called legal highs]? No. Marijuana has been around for hundreds of years, its effects are well known and you cannot kill yourself with it. You can kill yourself with the synthetics.”
It is now highly likely that many governments around the world will seek to emulate the UK’s Psychoactive Substances Act in one way or another, regardless of how ineffective the legislation proves at limiting harm.
As Huffman suggests, rather than continuing to pursue a blanket model of prohibition that has been proved time and again to have little effect on consumption levels and has simply served to boost the profits of organised crime groups, law makers should accept that the war against drugs is unwinnable, and work towards the legalisation and regulation of less harmful substances, while outlawing hugely damaging so-called legal highs.
With China pumping out more legal highs and the ingredients required to produce them than ever last year, the flow of these substances pouring into Europe shows no sign of ebbing any time soon. People have sought to alter their consciousness in one way or another since the dawn of time. Allowing legal and regulated access to less harmful drugs – such as cannabis and MDMA – is the only sensible way to address the growing scourge of their deadly alternatives.