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A new generation of synthetic illegal substances is quickly transforming the way young Chinese access and use drugs, and challenging law enforcement to keep up

By Zhou Qunfeng Updated Jan.1

Confiscated drugs are displayed at the Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department, July 30

In July, police in the city of Mianyang arrested nine people on suspicion of selling synthetic date rape drugs – a first for Sichuan Province. The suspects allegedly used the drug to rape their victims on video and upload it to make money.  

The men told police they had purchased the substances from abroad and infused them in foods such as chocolate, candies and beverages.  

In their liquid forms, the drugs are known on the street as “happy water,” “be-good water” and “water of oblivion.” They are among a new wave of synthetic drugs made from controlled substances purchased abroad and assembled in China for local sale.  

In its 2013 World Drug Report, the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) called the drugs “new psychoactive substances” (NPS), referring to “substances of abuse, either in a pure form or a preparation, that are not controlled by the 1961 Single Convention on or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat.”  

In October 2015, the National Narcotics Control Commission of China listed 116 kinds of NPS as drugs.  

Compared with plant-based opioids such as opium, cocaine and heroin, NPS are much cheaper and accessible, making them more attractive to younger Chinese.  

However, authorities are failing to keep up with the new synthetic drugs, posing an even greater challenge to regulation and crackdowns.  

Mysterious Package 
In early June, narcotics officers with Mianyang police received a tip on a drug deal. Since the substances were strictly regulated in China, police suspected the case involved trafficking and turned their attention to packages arriving from overseas.  

Soon after, customs agents alerted them to a package from Germany addressed to a Mianyang resident surnamed Yi. They traced the address, only to uncover an online underground market of illegal narcotics with customers across the country. To avoid alerting the suspect, the police allowed the package to be delivered.  

When Yi went to pick it up on June 23, police were waiting.  

Speaking with NewsChina, Sergeant Tian Jianxin of Mianyang city police said Yi is in his 20s and not native to the area. Yi told police he learned about NPS through a WeChat group. Sensing a lucrative business opportunity, Yi found suppliers in Germany and Japan and created multiple WeChat and QQ groups to connect with buyers in China. Before long, Yi and eight others had weaved a web stretching across the country.  

By mid-July, police tracked down eight more suspects in Beijing and in the provincial regions of Sichuan, Ningxia, Heilongjiang, Fujian and Jiangxi. They are still awaiting sentencing.  

Police raids uncovered vials of sevoflurane and midazolam – both sedatives used for anesthesia – and triazolam, a drug commonly prescribed to treat insomnia. When mixed with alcohol, the drugs can be fatal.  

Video footage was discovered on their phones showing multiple cases of rape. The suspects told police they mainly targeted young women they met online or knew through work. They lured them on dates, spiked their drinks, raped them and uploaded the footage on porn sites. Some of them even used the drugs on their unsuspecting spouses and partners.  

“The drugs pose multiple threats to victims: they’re highly addictive and an overdose could easily result in memory loss, unconsciousness, trouble breathing and even death,” Tian told NewsChina.  

“For instance, people who take a mixture of triazolam and midazolam could experience loss of consciousness and memory for six to eight hours, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault,” he said.  

Chinese authorities classify illegal drugs into three “generations.” First-generation drugs are directly extracted from plants, such as opium, marijuana, cocaine and heroin, while second generation are chemosynthetic, which like crystal meth and ketamine are organic compounds created from simple inorganic reactions.  

The third generation, NPS, is closely related to the second, and include highly addictive stimulants and hallucinogenics. However, since their molecular structures can be artificially modified and consumed without injections or smoking, NPS are harder to detect. 
“In China, it has been a long time since people first extracted drugs from regulated narcotics and psychotropic substances, but... NPS have become an increasingly serious trend that has been drawing more attention from the public,” Guo Yi, editor-in-chief of People’s Narcotics Control magazine, told NewsChina.  

According to “Drug Situation in China,” a paper issued by the National Narcotics Control Commission, law enforcement made over 92,000 drug-related arrests and prosecuted more than 64,000 cases in 2020. The report shows that drug deals are increasingly made online and delivered through courier services. During that year, 3,011 cases involving 4.3 tons of illegal drugs used legitimate delivery services to distribute, a year-on-year increase of 9.4 percent.  

Trapped Youth 
One distinctive feature of NPS cases is that the majority of those involved – from makers and dealers to consumers – are young people, many with degrees and secure jobs. 
The nine suspects in the Mianyang case were all young males under 30, Tian told NewsChina. “Most attended college and had proper jobs. Some were store owners and company managers. They were all economically viable citizens,” Tian said.  

Wang Jiawen, 31, is from Hunan Province. His first experience with drugs was in his early 20s while a student in Singapore. He inhaled nitrous oxide (laughing gas) at a music festival.  

It was a gateway to other drugs, and addiction followed. Wang dropped out of school. He was arrested in Beijing in October 2020 for drug use. Wang told police his drug use history included crystal meth, cocaine, and nitrous – which is classified as an NPS.  

“Wang has a long history of nitrous abuse. The drug has severely damaged his nervous system, resulting in a severe inability to focus mentally, sleeping disorders and an extremely irritable disposition,” said Ren Jianyue, an officer at the Beijing Tiantanghe Detoxification and Rehabilitation Center where Wang is confined.  

Lin Xinyue, 27, is now serving a sentence at the Women’s Detoxification and Rehabilitation Center in Zibo, Shandong Province. She first tried meth in February 2018. The first time she tried nitrous was in a bar. She inhaled six balloons at 10 yuan (US$1.5) a pop. Lin recalled how nitrous was being ingested as openly and casually as liquor.  

“Nitrous oxide is not considered a gateway drug, but many people are tempted to experiment with others once they take it,” said Zhao Xiaoting, a police officer at the Women’s Detoxification and Rehabilitation Center in Zibo, Shandong Province.  

Zhao chalks this curiosity up to lack of awareness, particularly among young people. “One time we held a talk in a community where we discussed the harmful effects of third-generation drugs. Many young students were quite surprised about nitrous oxide – ‘So laughing gas is a drug?’ they asked. It told us that young people already knew about third-generation drugs but didn’t know they were illegal. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness among teens and young adults,” Zhao told NewsChina.  

He Guoming, a lawyer at the Guangzhou-based Guangqiang Law Firm who specializes in drug-related cases, told our reporter that all his clients are between 24 and 30 years old. “Most had already joined the workforce but had just graduated school and moved out on their own. Young, reckless and inexperienced, they were so vulnerable to temptation,” He told NewsChina.  

“Many resorted to substances for relief from work pressure and the high cost of living,” he added.  

A suspect (center) in Sichuan Province’s first smuggling case of psychotropic narcotics is arrested by officers from Mianyang Public Security Bureau

Pictured are “third-generation” drugs confiscated by Mianyang police, Sichuan Province

Dual Dilemma 
At a press conference on May 11, Deputy Director of China National Narcotics Control Commission Deng Ming said: “As China is getting more heavy-handed in its crackdown on drugs, traditional drugs have become increasingly scarce. It is foreseeable that NPS, which are much cheaper and more difficult to detect, will be widely abused as an alternative to regular drugs.”  

When dealing with NPS-related crimes, authorities face difficulty in detection and lagging laws and regulations.  

The Drug Monitoring and Rehabilitation Center of Shandong Province in Zibo is the province’s only detox center for HIV-infected drug abusers.  

According to Zhang Ziqing, an officer at the facility, most of its 300 inmates are living with HIV and have had same-sex intercourse. After contracting HIV, most were shunned by their families and friends.  

To cope, many turned to drugs like alkyl nitrites (poppers), a vapor that is inhaled for a headrush-type high, or 5-MeO-D (known as “zero capsules” in China), a natural psychotropic derived from the venom of the Bufo alvarius (Colorado River) toad. An overdose of either can cause acute heart failure.  

“Compared with traditional drugs, NPS stay in the body for a shorter time, which is more difficult to test. For example, crystal meth remains in the system for one or two days. But zero capsules take four hours to metabolize,” Zhang told NewsChina.  

Wang Chunguang, a psychologist and former police officer who researches the neurological effects of drug addiction, said that because NPS are varied and metabolize quickly, users are more likely to pass traditional detection methods such as urine and saliva tests, making it difficult for police to build cases.  

“But if users keep evading punishment, it sends the message that NPS are not really drugs, which could tempt more people to try them. New testing methods that target third-generation drugs are greatly needed,” Wang said.  

NPS also pose challenges for prosecutors. Lawyer He Guoming said that as NPS also have medicinal applications, other factors must be taken into consideration in court cases such as the purpose of use, method of purchase and distribution.  

“In China, sentences for cases involving third-generation drugs are lighter than for traditional drugs. The death penalty has yet to be enforced, and some defendants are even acquitted,” He said.  

One of his cases involved a college student who studied in the US. When he returned to China, he was arrested for drug trafficking when he was caught in possession of the prescription drug Ritalin. But prosecutors decided not to charge the young man, considering the small amount and his claims that he was unaware Ritalin is a controlled substance in China.  

“Since drug makers keep developing new, unlisted psychoactive substances, in many cases laws and regulations are failing to keep up,” He told NewsChina.