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How a massive meth bust in China is tied to traditional medicine

Paramilitary policemen carry seized crystal meth at Boshe village, Lufeng, Guangdong province.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Police in Southern China seized 3 tonnes (more than 6,600 lbs) of methamphetamine in a drug raid this week in a small village in Guangdong, and arrested 182 people in connection with the raid, including a local former Communist Party chief.

Boshe, population 14,000, is one of China’s biggest methamphetamine manufacturing centers, police said, and more than one-fifth of the village’s households are directly involved or had a stake in the drugs production. (There’s a very complete run-down of the raid on Tea Leaf Nation.) Since July 30, 2013, Guangdong police have arrested over 10,000 suspected drug traffickers and seized more than 8 metric tonnes of drugs, Guo Shaobo, deputy director of the provincial public security bureau, told the People’s Daily newspaper.

While heroin remains the most-used illegal drug (pdf, pg. 60) in China, synthetic drugs, including ketamine and methamphetamine, are a fast-growing second—China’s National Narcotics Control Commission reported a 44% increase in “registered” synthetic drug users in 2012, at 212,000. They made up 69% of all of China’s new drug users in 2012. Seizures of methamphetamine pills in particularly have risen sharply in recent years:

But why this small village? Boshe and the surrounding city of Lufeng are also a major distribution center for Ma Huang, a herb commonly used in Chinese medicine to alleviate wheezing, coughs and congestion, according to a report (in Chinese and with great pictures) in the Southern Metropolis Daily. Ma Huang is also known as Ephedra Sinica, a plant traditionally cultivated in arid northwestern China, which is a natural source of ephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine and also in Western medicines for asthma, among other ailments.

As recently at 2008, local governments were encouraging farmers (link in Chinese) to grow the crop, promising return on investment rates above 60%, but last May the government introduced strict new rules about its growth, sale and purchase aimed at curbing methamphetamine production. Still, Ephedra comes into the Lufeng area by the truckload, pictures in the Southern Metropolis Daily seem to show.

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