Welcome to Shanghai ... or Shang-high for some

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2011, 12:00am


'You like a smoke?' he asks, taking a long drag on his sweetly fragrant roll-up and leaning back against a pet-shop window.

It's just gone 10pm on a weeknight and a popular bar street in the centre of Shanghai is unusually quiet. We have barely met and this tall Nigerian has offered me a score almost by way of a 'hello'.

Marijuana fumes hang thick in the air, yet he seems unruffled by the police officer shuffling along the other side of the street. Welcome to Shang-high, where purveyors of 'rare herbs and proscribed chemicals' are 10 a penny.

For its size, Shanghai's drug problems are hardly overwhelming, especially when compared with major cities in developed countries. This is no New York, London or Paris. The vast majority of the 24 million people in the city earn far too little to blow money on blowing their brains - and are not so demoralised to want to do it regardless.

But times are changing, and the young, recently enriched are more easily parted with their cash. Not content with glugging down overpriced cocktails, some of them are starting to experiment with other substances. Wander past a trendy nightspot - the gaudy sort of warehouse-sized disco where they serve champagne with sparklers - late on a Saturday night and it's easy to spot the occasional wide-eyed stupor that it takes chemicals more complex than alcohol to induce.

In the past six months or so, things have been getting noticeably more blatant. The French Concession's Uygur dealers are no longer content to mutter about their Xinjiang wares from the shadows. They stride down the centre of the street brazenly calling, 'Hey, hashish-marijuana' at every Westerner or Bohemian-looking young Han they pass.

For something a little harder, it's customary to seek out the Nigerians. Shortly before the start of last year's World Expo, these backstreet pharmacists vanished almost overnight. They now seem to have multiplied several times over, having stocked up on goodies and staked out their claims for business districts. They appear well organised, interconnected and for the most part not overly pushy. The one thing they are not, though, is discreet: in a virtually ethnically homogenous city, black drug dealers are adhering to the sore-thumb school of camouflage.

Figures released by local police late last month appear to back up these anecdotal observations. In the first five months of this year, the authorities arrested 1,258 suspects for drug-related offences involving 190kg of narcotics, 81 per cent of which was methamphetamine. There was little change in the number of offences but the quantity of contraband was up by over 30 per cent on the same period last year.

Changes in police figures on drug offences do not necessarily reflect the whole picture. Greater vigilance or a slackening off would have an impact on the figures even if the volume of trafficking stayed the same. Nobody keeps a tally of how many drug smugglers don't get caught, after all. Yet it does seem telling that while the number of cases remains unchanged, the quantity of narcotics seized has gone up significantly.

The reasons for that are unclear. Are the dealers simply getting greedy? Perhaps the Shanghai market has grown lucrative enough to warrant taking greater risks. Or perhaps the authorities have just been lucky, and hit the really big cases, such as the 'underground factory' they busted in May where 41.6kg of drugs were seized or the man from Togo nabbed last month getting off a plane from Dubai with 3.5kg of heroin in his suitcase.

Three in 10 drug smugglers arrested at the city's airports since 2009 were foreign citizens, according to the Shanghai No1 People's Court. That's 12 times as many as during the previous three years. Customs officials have also noted a change in the source of hard drugs in recent years. Previously, narcotics were largely smuggled in from Europe, but increasingly they originate in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Another statistic released last month showed that local drug users are getting younger, or the ones the police catch are, at least. Of 291 users of 'synthetic drugs' - by which they mean the likes of methamphetamine or Ecstasy - arrested between January and May, the average age was 29.8 and around half were under 25. The significance of that is a little hard to quantify, because the Shanghai Municipal Anti-Drug Office, which was behind the report, declined to give ages for previous years.

Like many things in this city, the authorities talk a good line about being tough on drugs. They have no trouble setting rules and laying down guidelines. It's the implementation they struggle with.

And that brings us back to that bar street and our Nigerian acquaintance. One Friday night recently, the police swooped on the area with a heavy-duty raid. A column of vans roared up with lights flashing and dozens of officers burst into the pubs and scoured the pavements for illegal activity.

Half an hour beforehand, every single dealer - both Nigerian and Uygur - plus the squadron of beggars and food hawkers camped outside the watering holes had vanished into thin air. No sooner had Shanghai's finest completed their inspections and headed back off to the station, it was business as usual. That's one way to save on the paperwork, one might suppose.