China Manufactures Shocking Amounts of Methamphetamine

By Zachary Siegel 06/01/15

With chemical factories galore and a massive labor force, China is the real Breaking Bad of meth.

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As the world’s largest producer of chemical precursors to meth, China’s booming business makes Walter White’s operation look like a mom and pop candy store.

In 2014, for example, an entire village was busted in the Guangdong Province, home to many of China’s chemical factories. The bust shutdown 77 neighboring meth labs and seized more than 100 tons of essential ingredients used to manufacture the milky crystals.

A 50-year-old chemistry professor in the province of Xi’an appears to have taken direct notes from Breaking Bad when in the summer of 2013 he teamed up with another professor and together they entered the meth game. Their meth-empire fell last week when law enforcement seized 128 kilograms of salable product, 2,000 liters of near-finished product, and 5 million yuan (approximately $806,000). Their distribution network, which webbed across China, has since dissolved.

This most recent bust comes in light of data released last week by China’s National Narcotics Control Commission. In 2014, according to the report, there were nearly 14 million drug addicts—though it's likely the real number is much higher—living in China. Of those 14 million, only 2.955 million are registered with government agencies and more than half of those—1.459 million—were recorded as meth users. According to the commission, the number of synthetic drug users is growing 36% every year.

Many countries are dealing with their own drug epidemics. China’s, however, is uniquely complex. The supply is already there and streamlined due to the country’s dense chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The supply then satiates the demand of migrant laborers, a massive population in China. For instance, the Guangdong Province, where the whole-village bust took place, attracts tens of millions of factory and migrant workers—who tend to lead lonely lives and suffer high rates of depression—from all over China.

A 2014 study analyzed levels of illicit drugs in the sewage of major cities all over China. Meth was found in every single sample and was especially high in the Guangdong Province.

The government is making strides to combat the disturbing trend of synthetic drug use. President Xi Jinping has orchestrated a very public campaign against drug use. Law enforcement is honing in on drug users with strict policy to control the flow of chemical precursors being developed and implemented.

These efforts, however, may seem futile against China’s insatiable demand coupled with endless supply. As for the two Walter White and Jesse Pinkman-esque professors, two more meth cooks will undoubtedly take their place and create yet another empire.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.