Losing its grip on the drug problem

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am

China marked International Anti-Drugs Day last week with a mix of the old and the new. In the run-up, at least 10 drug traffickers were executed around the country, and the usual series of drug-related statistics were announced.

The day also marked the culmination of a week-long series of events and TV programmes aimed at briefing the public on the mainland's war against drugs and educating them on the dangers of drug abuse.

But the announcements about executions were kept more low-key than usual this year. Also, authorities were unusually frank in their assessment of the growing drug-addiction problem. And there was even a touch of show business, with an anti-drugs road tour featuring a host of well-known stars.

While June 26 is officially known as the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, the date has become synonymous with drug-related executions on the mainland, and tarnishes the more positive action taken by Beijing.

Questions have been raised as to the effectiveness of the execution approach. Does it really work? The latest statistics on drug trafficking seem to say 'no'. Last year police arrested 58,000 suspected traffickers and seized 6.9 tonnes of heroin. Yet, the situation is getting worse. China counted 785,000 drug addicts at the end of last year, with 89 per cent addicted to heroin. Of the heroin addicts, 69 per cent were below the age of 35.

The use of new drugs - such as Ice, or methamphetamine, and Ecstasy - is also spreading, particularly among young people, and the amount of foreign involvement in drug trafficking is growing. While the Golden Triangle - Myanmar, Thailand and Laos - remains the main source of heroin, the Golden Crescent - spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran - is now supplying an increasing flow of Ice and heroin.

In a bid to tackle the problem, Beijing launched a 'people's war on drugs' in April last year. This grass-roots approach is reminiscent of the 'mass line' method of intimidation used by Mao Zedong and his followers to rid China of wide-scale opiate addiction in 1949. There were an estimated 70 million drug users in China at the time. However, it took only three years to declare the country officially 'drug free'.

The 'people's war on drugs' might not be as extreme, but users are being rooted out. Chen Cunyi , deputy secretary-general of the National Narcotics Control Commission, said that 250,000 tips on drug activity had poured in since the campaign started. But he also admitted that the war was not yet being won: the number of addicts was still on the rise.

The abuse of Ice and Ecstasy pills in many of the city's entertainment venues is rampant, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau said last week. In a move that the 'mass line' generation would be proud of, Beijing police carried out urine tests on young clientele at bars, karaoke halls and discos around the city.

Whatever the merits of this approach, its effectiveness is diminished by legislation that, while it spells out clear penalties for hard-drug traffickers and dealers, does not define punishments for users.

Beijing has already drafted new legislation on the issue, but it won't be ready until the end of the year. The main sticking points are the length of sentences and the minimum age when offenders can be punished.

But clarifying China's existing legislation will not solve the problem of drug abuse. And it's clear that, whatever the Communist Party does to tackle the problem, it will be impossible to repeat Mao's feat of over 50 years ago. China is opening, and the party's ability to control society is not what it used to be.

Eanna O'Brogain is a Beijing-based journalist