Asia’s ATS Epidemic: The Challenges for China

Yong-an Zhang

China’s geographical location has long made it a transit country for traffickers of illegal narcotics, and its large population has made it a huge potential consumption market. In recent years, however, China has become increasingly a producing country of new synthetic substances, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) in particular, as well as a final consumption market.

A police raid on Boshe Village in Lufeng City, Guangdong Province in late December 2013 hints at the increasing ATS production in China. Boshe is regarded as “Guangdong’s No. 1 Drug Village,” and may even be the no. 1 drug village in all of China. On December 29 over 3000 armed police from Guangdong’s Provincial Public Security Department, utilizing helicopters, motorboats, and police dogs, busted the village’s drug rings: 18 large drug gangs operating 77 drug-production sites. The police seized 2925 kg of methamphetamine (meth), 260 kg of ketamine (Special K), and more than 23 tons of raw drug material. According to official statistics, over the past three years, Lufeng’s share of domestically produced crystal meth has increased to 33.4 percent (2013) from 14 percent (2010).[1] Guangdong, Fujian and Sichuan provinces in particular are making more ATS in their own underground laboratories/factories in recent years.

Furthermore, the increasing abuse of methamphetamines is not limited to China, but is also increasing in other East and Southeast Asian nations. The overall trend in this region is a shift from traditional drugs (e.g. opium or heroin) to ATS as the primary drug on the market. The ATS epidemic is becoming a serious challenge for China and East and Southeast Asia.

ATS in East and Southeast Asia

ATS—a group of substances comprising synthetic stimulants including amphetamine, methamphetamine, methcathinone, and ecstasy-group substances—are not new drugs in East and Southeast Asia. In 1893 in Japan, methamphetamine, a variant of amphetamine, was first synthesized by Nagayoshi Nagai from the precursor chemical ephedrine. In 1919, another Japanese chemist, Akira Ogata, manufactured crystallized meth. After World War II, Japan was the first country in the world to experience a serious “meth epidemic,” and it still has a significant abuse problem.[2] It later boomed in Taiwan, in the 1970s, and Thailand in the early 1990s.

Southeast Asia experienced a boom in the production and consumption of ATS, in particular methamphetamine, in the 1990s accompanying industrialization, globalization, and a transformation in the dominant cultural values. While this problem is recognized by government authorities, the region’s counter-drug strategies which have long focused on the so-called “hard drugs,” opium and its derivatives in particular, also indirectly provide ample incentive for manufacturers and traffickers to expand their illicit businesses.[3]

ATS obviously pose serious human security and public health threats, and East and Southeast Asia, which are home to about one-third of the world’s population, have some of the largest and most established ATS markets in the world—in particular Myanmar for methamphetamine pills and China for crystal meth (“ice”). According to the data of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2012, 227 million methamphetamine pills were seized—up 59 percent from the year before and a more than seven-fold increase compared with 2008. The trend continued into 2013, and some of the largest ATS seizures in the world occur in East and Southeast Asia.[4] Furthermore, illicit ATS manufacture continues at high levels: some 385 synthetic drug manufacturing facilities, most of which were manufacturing methamphetamine, were dismantled in 2012 in East and Southeast Asia.[5]

Almost two thirds of the world’s amphetamine and methamphetamine users live in Asia, most of them in East and Southeast Asia.[6] Methamphetamine in pill, powder, and crystalline forms are the most widely used forms of ATS in the region.[7]

ATS Boom in China


While heroin is still the drug of choice among registered drug users in China, the share of heroin users among all users is declining steadily, while the use of so-called “new drugs” (methamphetamine, ecstasy, and ketamine) has become something of a fashion among Chinese urban youth. In recent years, methamphetamine (in both pill and crystalline form) has become the second most commonly used illicit drug in China.

Over the past two or more decades, the registered number of drug addicts in China has soared over 30-fold, from 70,000 in 1989 to more than 2,098,000 by the end of 2012. 38 percent of registered drug users, almost 800,000 people, were identified as users of ATS. This percentage has continuously increased from about 6.7 percent in 2005, to 16.1 percent in 2007, to 27 percent in 2009, and to 32.7 percent in 2011. By the end of March 2013 it was about 40 percent.[8]

Perhaps more worryingly, usage of ATS is being regarded as a “normal” means of recreation and communication among more and more urban youths and some professional groups. ATS users comprise a strong majority of newly registered drug users. In 2012, 210,000 of 305,000 new registered drug users in China (68.8 percent) were identified as users as synthetic drugs. Three-quarters of synthetic drug users were under the age of 35,[9] indicating that ATS will be a primary choice of drug in the future.

Besides consumption and abuse, in recent years, the illicit manufacture of ATS has expanded significantly in China. Laboratories in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces are seen as major sources of the crystal meth trafficked in other Asian nations. Furthermore, China bridges East Asia and the Greater Mekong Subregion and, together with India, is regarded as one of the main sources for the precursors chemicals needed to produce meth worldwide. [10]

Many clandestine synthetic drug manufacturing facilities, most of which manufacture crystalline methamphetamine or ketamine, are dismantled annually in China.[11]According to reports of the National Narcotics Control Commission of China, 34 clandestine synthetic drug manufacturing facilities were raided in 2005. 357 such facilities were raided in 2011, and 326 facilities were raided in 2012 (a 9 percent decrease). Of the 326 clandestine laboratories dismantled, 228 (70 percent) were manufacturing crystalline methamphetamine, and more than half were in Guangdong province. A large number of clandestine laboratories were also seized in the Chengdu area of Sichuan province.[12]

Obviously, China’s drug market is undergoing and will continue to undergo a significant transformation, given the continuous increase in ATS users, the younger age demographic characteristics of these users, and large-scale production. In short, China is entering “the era of ATS.”

Designing effective counter-drug policies

To face the challenges from the ATS boom, in 2005 the government of China launched a “People’s War on Drugs” aimed at both the supply of and demand for illegal narcotics. Though Chinese authorities have begun to confront the issue, its measures have not been able stop or significantly interdict the spreading of ATS across the country. What new steps should be taken to deal with this problem, or at least to avoid its worsening in China?

First, the government of China should actively participate in the establishment of a global early warning system in new psychoactive substances (NPS) in response to this complex and changing phenomenon, such as the kind proposed by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the UNODC.[13] While international drug control conventions offer the possibility of scheduling new substances, the sheer rapidity of emerging NPS in various types and names makes this a very challenging undertaking.[14] The government of China should cooperate with the international community to monitor and prevent the spread of NPS.

Second, the government of China should enhance Asian regional multilateral responses to the ATS challenge, especially through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In particular, China could make use of the newly established joint law enforcement efforts along the Mekong River to fight against the manufacture and trafficking of ATS. This would be good for the region and good for China: most methamphetamine trafficked to China is smuggled from Myanmar and Lao PDR to Yunnan, Guangdong, and Guangxi provinces for trafficking to regions further inland. In 2012, nearly 9 tons of methamphetamine pills originating from Myanmar were seized in Yunnan, an increase of 26 percent over the previous year.[15] Conversely, the international community should assist and urge these countries to participate actively in regional multilateral cooperation, and encourage them to take consistent concrete actions together in ATS control.

Third, China should help establish an international ATS signature database and introduce a global traceability system for the precursor chemicals to various types of ATS. This would help control the manufacture, trade/trafficking, and consumption of ATS. Since 2005, Chinese authorities from national, provincial, and local levels have been required to register and regulate precursor chemicals to control production, management, purchase, transportation, and import and export. But these measures so far are insufficient to prevent diversion to the illicit market because some precursor chemicals can move freely across the world as legal raw materials. But a global system would be very helpful in tracing the movement of precursor chemicals and various ATS.

Fourth, sustainable and comprehensive alternative economic development programs are essential for long term success in the war on ATS manufacture, trafficking, and abuse in China. The illegal ATS economy is characterized by low cost and high profit, and as a result traditional economic activities are gradually declining or disappearing in ATS manufacture areas. To disrupt the dynamics of the dark modernization taking place in these drug villages and cities, the government of China should, as Brookings expert Vanda Felbab-Brown has suggested, undertake “a multifaceted building effort that seeks to strengthen the bonds between the state and marginalized communities dependent on or vulnerable to participation in illicit economies” by creating a social, economic, and political environment consistent with the needs of the people.[16]

Finally, China should revise traditional drug control strategies and undertake feasible efforts at prevention, enforcement, and treatment that are based on the different pharmacological properties and culture of synthetic drugs. The official discourse on drug addiction is based on the pharmacological properties of opioid drugs, not those of synthetic drugs. And while the Chinese government’s discourse on addiction reaches back to the historical memory of the Opium War, a very different discourse informs the recreational use of synthetic drugs today. We thus see that the use of opiates and synthetic drugs carry very different social meanings. The former implies painful historical memories of a backward country, while the latter reveals the dominant cultural values of an industrial society and globalization. The current transformation of the Chinese drug market essentially reflects this shift in drug culture, in which the dominant discourse has shifted from addiction to entertainment. So the traditional anti-opioid approaches, which the government undertook with success in the early 1950s, are not suitable for modern synthetic drugs.


[1] Yang Jiang and Leng Feng, “Chaos behind No. 1 Drug Village,” [“第一毒村”背后的乱象], Xinmin Weekly, No. 773 (January 9, 2014),

[2] Tom Blickman, “The ATS Boom in Southeast Asia,” in Withdrawal Symptoms in the Golden Triangle – A Drugs Market in Disarray, Transnational Institute, January 2009, p. 54,

[3] Global SMART Programme, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Challenges for Asia and the Pacific 2013, November 2013, p. 9,

[4] Ibid, p. 10.

[5] Ibid, p. 10.

[6] Blickman, “The ATS Boom in Southeast Asia,” p. 52.

[7] Global SMART Programme, UNODC, Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs, p. 9

[8] Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2005-2013, [2005-2013年中国禁毒报告],China National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC), Ministry of Public Security, Beijing, 2005-2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Blickman, “The ATS Boom in Southeast Asia,” p. 64.

[11] Global SMART Programme, UNODC, Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs, p. 62.

[12] Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2005-2013, [2005-2013年中国禁毒报告]; Global SMART Programme, UNODC, Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs, p. 62.

[13] United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, “Report on the fifty-sixth session,” Advance Unedited Version, March 2013,

[14] The use of new psychoactive substances (NPS), i.e. psychoactive substances not under international control that pose a health threat, has grown rapidly over the past decade. UNODC, World Drug Report 2013, p. 59.

[15] Global SMART Programme, UNODC, Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs, p. 64; Annual Report on Drug Control in China 2013, [2013年中国禁毒报告].

[16] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “A State-building Approach to the Drug Trade Problem,” The Brookings Institution, July 18, 2013,