‘Bath salt’ seizures in Hong Kong increase sixfold as traffickers try to send drug to United States

Government source says more drugs are being sent from mainland China through city by post or as express parcels to avoid detection

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 11:53pm

Seizures of cheap substitutes for traditional drugs known as “bath salts” have surged more than sixfold year-on-year in the first four months of this year, as traffickers tried to smuggle the synthetic drug from the mainland to the United States through the city.

According to the latest figures obtained by the Post, customs officers netted 147kg of “bath salts” – properly known as synthetic cathinone – between January and April this year and arrested one person. This compares to 23kg seized in the same period last year with no arrests.

The haul in the first four months accounted for more than 77 per cent of “bath salt” seizures in the whole of 2016.

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A 59kg haul in March marked the biggest case this year. The drugs were concealed in a number of air parcels destined for the US, where the drugs became popular in 2011.

The surge came after the Security Bureau warned about new types of drugs coming into the city over the past year. But the authorities stressed the seized drugs were not intended for local use and saw no such trend developing.

Derivatives of cathinone – a substance developed from the khat plant which has been chewed as a mild stimulant in the Middle East for centuries– act as central nervous system stimulants that can cause euphoria, elevated moods, hallucination, memory problems and extremely erratic behaviour.

A government source said consumption of new psychoactive substances had become a new global trend because of the low production cost.

“[They] are chemically engineered by copying the chemical structures of traditional drugs. It is easy and cheap to produce in massive quantities, especially on the mainland,” the insider said.

“‘Bath salts’ are marketed as cheap substitutes for controlled stimulants such as Ice and cocaine. Cocaine is 7.5 times more expensive than ‘bath salts’.”

A pharmacist warned about the health hazards from taking cheap designer drugs as they were highly addictive and potent.

“Although ‘bath salts’ give the same mental sensations as Ice and cocaine, they also cause high blood pressure, heart problems, dehydration and kidney failure,” Society of Hospital Pharmacists president William Chui Chun-ming said.

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A spokesman for the Customs and Excise Department said “bath salts” and gamma-butyrolactone, the raw ingredient of date-rape drugs, were the most common types of new psychoactive substances discovered in Hong Kong. They were mainly seized from postal and express packets transiting through Hong Kong.

The source added many of the “bath salts” were smuggled into the city from the mainland before being exported overseas.

“Parcel delivery is the common mode of drug trafficking as drug dealers want to evade arrest and avoid detection,” the source continued, adding it was very rare to find “bath salts” in the local market.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, global seizures of “bath salts” have been increasing since they were first reported in 2010. Seizures tripled between 2013 and 2014, reaching 1.3 tons.

Local customs officers seized 190kg of “bath salts” and 360kg of gamma-butyrolactone in 2016. These two drugs accounted for 45 per cent of total drug seizures last year.

In 2015, authorities netted 123.5kg of “bath salts” and 140kg of gamma-butyrolactone. None of the latter was found in the first four months of this year.

Security minister Lai Tung-kwok said in February that these drugs were controlled under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance and that the government would monitor the situation closely, although there were no indications of their use in Hong Kong.

Anyone who traffics, sells or gives away dangerous drugs is liable to imprisonment for life and a fine of HK$5 million.