In depth: China’s burgeoning ‘legal highs’ trade
Share this on

In depth: China’s burgeoning ‘legal highs’ trade

China openly selling psychoactive substances in bulk as demand for ‘legal highs’ reaches unprecedented levels in the West

Yes, they do export chemicals used for manufacturing  psychoactive substances. And yes, business is good, Mr. Zou Wenlong from Qingdao Hecheng Chemical Factory told Asian Correspondent in a phone interview. They sell their products both on the domestic and foreign markets, but the latter option is available only when orders are large. In any case, they export through intermediaries, not directly.

During another interview in February, a Fujian-based producer told us that his company does ship new – supposedly legal – drugs to international customers. Even mephedrone, which has recently lost his ‘legal’ status: it was banned in 2010. The interviewee was aware that these substances are used as drugs, but replied that “all things have two sides”, probably meaning that all they do is sell the chemicals, what customers decide to do with them is none of their business.

The two companies are among many that provide Europe with the latest products on the drug market, the so-called legal highs – powerful, little known psychoactive substances. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) uses the term to indicate “unregulated psychoactive substances or products [..] which are specifically intended to mimic the effects of controlled drugs”, including “a wide range of synthetic and plant-derived substances, which are usually sold on the Internet or in smart or head shops”. They warn, however, that “describing these substances as ‘legal’ can be incorrect or misleading: some products may contain substances controlled under drug legislation, while others may be covered by medicines or food safety laws”.

(READ MORE: Legal highs: Asia faces a new war on drugs)

Chiefly manufactured in China and India – but also inside the EU – legal highs are flooding the markets in the Old Continent, with governments cornered by their number and uncertain chemical composition.

According to a 2013 report by the EMCDDA, legal highs are “emerging at an unprecedented rate”, with 73 substances notified in 2012, up from 49 in 2011 and 41 in 2010. Prolonging the surveyed years makes figures all the more striking: more than 200 new substances have been notified across the EU since 2005. The number of sellers has dramatically increased, too, moving from 170 shops in 2010 to 693 last year.

According to Ms Linda Nilsson, project manager at the Sweden-based World Federation Against Drugs, numbers for the Swedish market show that legal highs account for a significant segment for the drug market, and while cannabis is still the most sold and consumed drug, “numbers point towards this to be number two”. Europol contends that while legal highs are still taking a small share of the drug market, “lower prices, increased availability and quality are likely to attract more users”.

Legal highs are often produced by organizations headquartered in developed countries who find it cheaper to relocate their production elsewhere. According to the Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, European organized crime groups “produce synthetics cheaply in Africa and Asia and distribute their products to markets in Europe”.

“China remains the main source of precursors and pre-precursors. [..] India and Thailand are also sources for the substances used in the conversion process, albeit to a lesser extent”. A primacy which could be challenged soon, as the same report points out that “western, northern and eastern Africa are likely to become increasingly attractive locations to producers of synthetics due to improved transport links with profitable markets in Europe, new local market opportunities and inexpensive labor.”

Ms Nilsson told Asian Correspondent that the Customs in Sweden believes that as a general rule synthetic cannabinoids come from inside Europe and synthetic cathinones come from China and India. Harry Shapiro of DrugScope confirmed that imports can be “either the precursor chemicals used in production – or the finished product itself”.


Pic: AP.

New drugs are sold in legal shops – either physical or online – which offer a variety of substances and market them with fantasy names such as “A3A”, “EM2 ultimate chiller” or “Benzo Fury”. Some are natural – like salvia and magic mushrooms – but most are synthetic and vary greatly in terms of composition. A major challenge governments have to face is the speed at which new chemical compounds appear: before a new drug is labeled as illicit, many others have already reached consumers.

Mephedrone, a drug which mimics the effects of amphetamines, was initially sold freely but was banned in 2010 by the British government. In 2012, “Black Mamba” and “Mexxy” entered the list of illegal drugs, too.

Legal highs are relatively cheap and often distributed as plant food or glass cleaning powder. Sellers usually publish a disclaimer on their websites saying that if you use their products “improperly” they will not be responsible for consequences. A smart policy on their part, because these substances can be harmful, even lethal. Mr. Shapiro emphasized that as they mimic the effects of illegal drugs they present the same risks. Sometimes even greater, because “the purity of some illegal drugs has fallen so people have been switching in the hope of getting more ‘bangs for bucks’”.

Producers pay attention to medical studies to create new products, but for many of these substances there is little or no available information , and consequences can be bad. Ms Nilsson said that  “many of the drugs sold as legal highs are extremely dangerous”, adding that “it is difficult to say something general about all the drugs that are considered to be legal highs since it is thousands of different drugs, some are extremely lethal and others are probably not as toxic.”

Lack of knowledge, both from users and medical staff, is a danger in itself. “Since the drugs are new and there is no experience of using or treating, they are extra dangerous”, said Ms Nilsson. “Many of the users don’t know which dose they are supposed to take or which effect they can expect from the drug, they can’t even be sure of which drug they are using. Also the healthcare is lacking knowledge. When a drug user comes in to hospital after an overdose they often don’t know which drug they should treat the patient for, and even if they know which drug they have low experience in treating an overdose”.

It could be years before we know the consequences of long exposure to these chemicals, but we already know that at least some legal highs are no less dangerous than their traditional peers. In 2010, the United Kingdom registered over 40 deaths resulting from using new substances sold as legal highs, more than eight times as many as the previous year. The Daily Mail reported figures from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths according to which “mephedrone, also known as meow meow, claimed 29 victims in 2010, compared to five the previous year”.