Illicit drugs are a big issue in China.

Methamphetamine, ketamine, heroin and marijuana are the drugs of choice, especially among young men.

Both locals and foreigners can get in a lot of trouble if caught selling or doing drugs in China. Trafficking illicit drugs incurs severe penalties including life in prison and even the death penalty.

Despite this, drugs are still sold and consumed across China. And the number of drug addicts is rising.

The drug trade in China

China borders what’s known as the Golden Triangle. It’s a massive area including parts of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Historically, drug trafficking in the region has been rife.

It’s one way that poor rural people can make a living. And, the mountainous terrain makes it harder to catch criminals.

Drugs are transported through nearby Yunnan and Guangxi provinces and then into the rest of China. They’re then consumed locally or shipped internationally at the ports.

Drugs can also make their way into China from countries like Afghanistan and North Korea.

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But China is now a major producer of ingredients that go into illegal drugs like methamphetamine.

This has created a local industry of clandestine drug-making facilities.

In 2015, Chinese authorities revealed almost all the crystal meth (ice) and ketamine in the domestic drug consumption market were locally manufactured.

The village of Boshe, in Guangdong province, made the news in 2013 when 3,000 police arrested 180 suspects. Police say 20% of the households in Boshe were linked to producing crystal meth.

The Thunder, a drama series based on the events in Boshe, premiered on Chinese streaming platform iQiyi in 2019. This put the village under the spotlight once again.

Illicit drug use in China

For the most part, Chinese people are law-abiding. But drug use doesn’t escape any country.

China has a national registry where police submit information about drug enforcement activities.

A report by San Diego State University shows there were almost 2.5 million officially registered drug addicts in 2013. Most are men under the age of 35.

Of this number, 53% were registered as heroin addicts. However, since 2001 the proportion of heroin users has been gradually declining in comparison to other drugs.

In recent years, synthetic drugs like crystal meth (known as ‘bingdu’ in Chinese) and ketamine have become increasingly popular.

Meth lab

A clandestine meth lab.

While official numbers are sketchy, meth is now believed to be the most widely used addictive drug in China.

Meth can be consumed easily and cheaply at home, or even in private spaces like karaoke bars.

In rural areas, where narcotic control management and education is fairly loose, drug use is rampant.

In Guangxi’s Longzhou County alone, there are 1,922 drug users on record. This means at least 1 out of every 140 residents is addicted to drugs.

And that’s just the official record.

What about ‘soft’ drugs?

Chinese authorities have a hard-line approach to all drugs. This includes so-called soft drugs such as marijuana.

But that hasn’t stopped locals trying to import marijuana from Canada, and parts of the US, where it’s legalized.

Marijuana China

Use of Marijuana is increasing in China.

The number of cannabis users in China grew by more than 25% in 2018, rising to about 24,000 people. But this is a tiny number relative to the total population.

In reality, the number of people who smoke weed in China is probably much higher.

Is drug use going up or down in China?

The number of drug-related crimes has been on a downward trend, according to China’s Global Times.

From 2015 to 2019, the number of drug cases before the Supreme People’s Court dropped to 85,800. This is a decrease of almost 40%.

However, the number of officially registered drug addicts in China has been on the rise.

San Diego State University statistics show from 2001 to 2013, the number of registered addicts more than doubled.

Treatment programs

Drug users are highly stigmatized in China.

Both voluntary and compulsory drug treatment programs are provided, although compulsory treatment is more common.

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If you’re caught taking drugs again, you’re sentenced to rehabilitation in re-education labor camps for up to two years.

These centers are run like prisons, including isolation from the outside world, restricted movement and a paramilitary routine.

Penalties for drug offences in China

Drug offences in China include:

  • Use
  • Possession
  • Manufacturing
  • Selling
  • Trafficking.

Penalties can be severe and may include life in prison or even the death penalty.

Stand-up comedian Kamu was sentenced to eight months in jail for allowing people to smoke marijuana in his Shanghai apartment. Police also found hemp plants inside, following a tip-off from an arrested dealer.

Drug warning sign China

A sign in a Guangzhou hostel aimed at tourists.

According to Global Times, 22% of drug-related crimes before the court from 2015 to 2019 got five years’ imprisonment or more.

The incarceration rate was significantly higher than all other criminal cases in the same period.

No leniency for foreigners

China is a safe country and this is especially the case for foreign tourists. But when you’re there, you’re subject to all local laws and penalties.

Some of China’s laws are harsh by Western standards, particularly for illicit drugs.

Chinese authorities can do random drug tests on foreigners, such as urine or hair tests. And, you can be prosecuted for returning a positive test regardless of when or where the drugs were taken.

This can result in fines, detention and deportation.

What happens to those who are arrested?

China has a 99.9% conviction rate. This is due to China’s rule of law.

Authorities won’t admit to making a mistake. Only a handful of cases of wrongful convictions, including some wrongful executions, have been publicized.

In China, once you turn 14 you’re treated as an adult under the law. This means detained teenagers are held with adults, and subject to the same conditions and legal processes as adults.

Arrested for drugs in China

You’re subject to local laws if you’re arrested in China.

If you’re arrested or jailed in China, your country’s embassy or consulate may be able to provide some support. But they won’t be able to get you out of trouble or out of jail.

Foreign governments are unable to intervene in the Chinese justice process.

The death penalty in China

The death penalty applies to drug offences as well as other serious crimes like murder.

According to Chinese criminal law, the highest punishment for those who smuggle more than 50 grams of illicit drugs like meth is the death penalty.

Authorities have executed foreigners for drug offences. For example, British national Akmal Shaikh was executed in Xinjiang in 2009 for trafficking 4 kilograms of heroin into the country.

This is despite claims he was mentally ill and an appeal for clemency from the UK prime minister.

If you’re sentenced to death in China, it’s unlikely that authorities will grant you leniency.

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Amnesty International says China executes more people than any other country in the world.

Annual estimates are in the thousands, but the true extent is unknown. The data is classified as a state secret.

This means Amnesty International doesn’t account for China in its global figure of 657 people executed in 2019.

Foreigners on death row in China

There are many cases of foreigners who have been sentenced to death in China for illicit drug offences.

Here are some recent high-profile ones:

  • Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was sentenced to death by Dalian Intermediate People’s Court for smuggling 222 kg of meth in January 2019.
  • Canadian, Fan Wei was sentenced to death in Guangdong three months later for making and selling more than 60 kg of meth.
  • Australian, Karm Gilespie was found carrying 7.5 kg of meth in his luggage at Guangzhou Airport in December 2013. He was sentenced to death in June 2020.

Prisoners in China generally don’t linger on death row.

They’re either executed immediately or given a suspended two-year sentence. After two years, they’re executed or given a less severe sentence (e.g. life in prison).

My experience in China

When I was teaching in China, I never saw or heard of any illicit drug use among my senior students.

And many moons ago, when I went to some of the bars and clubs in China, I didn’t see anything there either. Just lots of happy people drinking!

I do remember one time I was studying in Beijing, though.

Wanting to get into the center of town, I hailed a taxi on the side of the road. As I hopped in the cab, I was taken aback by the strong smell of marijuana.

Not knowing what to do, I just opened the window.

I didn’t say anything to the driver. For all I knew, the smell could have come from his last passenger. But I had my suspicions!

While this has been my experience in China, there are reports (like this one) that buying marijuana in the backstreets of China’s big cities is both cheap and easy.

In some ways, drugs are like prostitution in China – a flourishing, underground industry.

Are you traveling to China soon?

The purpose of this blog isn’t to put you off traveling to China.

Quite the contrary – China is a great travel destination for people of all ages.

Just be mindful of the laws that apply in China as they can be very different to those in your country.

Drug penalties can be harsh, especially for illicit drugs, so don’t do anything silly.

Travel safely in China!

I hope you liked my blog about illicit drugs in China. You might also like the one I wrote about what not to bring to China. It’s pretty helpful.

Also check out my blog about China banks.