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China’s Online Drug Bazaar

Taobao, QQ , and designer drug companies find loopholes, customers, and solace in the anonymity of the World Wide Web


China’s Online Drug Bazaar

Taobao, QQ , and designer drug companies find loopholes, customers, and solace in the anonymity of the World Wide Web


Waiting for the man has never been much fun: whether it is meeting Rajul with his Himalayan hash outside the Salvation Army Hostel in Bombay; scoring plastic bags brimming with ketamine from Fernando in an East London underpass; or pocketing cocaine of questionable quality from shady businessmen in darkened back alleys in Sanlitun, Beijing. But things are changing. The deep-web, cryptocurrencies, newly developed analogue drugs, poor regulation, unscrupulous chemists, and of course, humanity’s seemingly endless desire to get high are seeing the internet become an ever-expanding playground for drug takers and pushers alike. And, as far as production goes, China is firmly at the forefront.

“When do you want the product? Spring Festival is coming. We might be going home soon,” a dealer, choosing to be called Serendipity, asked via his QQ messenger account. The product he was casually referring to, while planning his hometown holiday, was a methamphetamine. Serendipity was big on customer service: friendly, down-to-earth, courteously, doing his level-best to answer questions regarding the purchasing process, the pick-up, not to mention queries regarding the differences in his seemingly vast array of illegal narcotics. In what sounded like a hamburger advertisement, his QQ profile claimed “100% Satisfaction, 100% Fast Delivery, and 100% Reputation”. Nothing else in his profile gave away the fact that he was a drug dealer, but he was not difficult to find. His QQ number was just a random one pulled from hundreds, thrown-up by the single, if somewhat unimaginative, Google search: “Meth Beijing Buy”.

Where Serendipity liked to play it relatively safe, other dealers were less subtle about the purpose of their QQ accounts, with names like “selling pure meth”. One of these accounts featured a personal message saying, “Selling pure meth, k, and yaba [a meth-type in pill form]. If sincerely want product, contact me on phone.”

One dealer simply had a profile picture of a mound of green and red pills piled high in a bowl. Alongside a mobile number, another dealer gave a detailed price list for all his many different grades of meth, each with their own exotic names, such as Yellow Toothpick, Cream Ice, Sugar Cube, and Diamond.

Serendipity was straightforward. As soon we said “nihao”, he went straight down to business, fi ring off two opening salvos: “How much do you need?” and “When do you need it by?” without so much as even asking what we were buying. Seeing his buyers were no meth experts, he immediately recommended his most expensive product: “900, two grams, the best, Diamond,” adding, “I’ve got the other kinds, but in terms of quality this is the most superior.” The payment method: Alipay. He offered two delivery methods: He would simply post it in the mail, or, in a more classic hand-off, we meet in a nearby supermarket and the product would be left in one of the lockers. Both methods, he promised, would ensure anonymity and safety.

Some dealers accepted small orders for recreational purposes, others only did wholesale. When asked whether his service extended to Beijing, the dealer, offering Yellow Toothpick, made his limits clear: “Minimum 2,000 kuai. When money arrives, I’ll ask my employees in Beijing to give you the stuff. Only in this way can I give it to you according to my price here, otherwise the price in Beijing is 350 [RMB] a gram (for the Yellow Toothpick).” When it came to ordering his cheapest product, ketamine, he only accepted orders over 30 grams.

Illegal pig feed additives, as well as ketamine and meth precursors were available on this website

Illegal pig feed additives, as well as ketamine and meth precursors were available
on this website

Authorities in China attempt to prevent drugs being sold online by using complex algorithms that prevent certain keywords from coming up in search engines and on the larger shopping websites, but such techniques are limited in their effectiveness. By being slightly creative with the search terms, these blocks are easily side-stepped. If you type the keyword “ketamine” you get hundreds of thousands of irrelevant results, but if you substitute it with its chemical formula C13H6ClNO, then thousands of B2B websites spring-up offering the product, usually but not always selling in large quantities: think kilos as opposed to grams.

Taobao, often lazily referred to as China’s eBay, is the nation’s most popular shopping website. Its range of products is immense: anything from breast milk soap right through to guns and even human corpses in formaldehyde, and, of course, drugs can be purchased. Most of the common names for illegal drugs are banned as search terms on Taobao, returning the notice “According to relative laws, regulations, and policies, items related to ‘[insert drug name]’ cannot be displayed”. Date rape drugs can’t currently be purchased on Taobao by simply typing in, say, Rohypnol, but the website’s auto-suggestions give the game away. Words dealing with the effects of the drugs can lead the dedicated searcher to Taobao suggestions based on other people’s searches, such as “female sex craze” and “increase sexual urge obedient”. These terms will lead enthusiastic buyers to the relevant substances. In time these terms will, too, become blocked, but sellers are invariably one step ahead of the game, finding ever-innovative ways to beat the system.

Today the main method of selling drugs on Taobao is in the form of a sort of intentional bait and switch, as pre-agreed by parties on either side of the transaction. Illegal drugs are simply sold as differently labeled products, i.e. instead of selling heroin, it is labeled as, say, tea instead. Obviously, this does not make it easy for buyers to find what they need. Online stores leave heavy hints so buyers know what the game is. The stores will say something innocuous along the lines of “if you can’t see the product you need online, please join our message group.” On joining such groups, buyers are given a Taobao store URL to purchase what are labeled as “vitamins”, “health tonics”, “tea”, or whatever fake products are used as disguise. At the end of 2013, Hunan police busted two brothers who sold over three million pills of Tramadol on Taobao, disguised as calcium pills and cold medicine. This was a part of a provincial level crackdown that lasted three months. A huge 416 kilograms of drugs were collected, as well as 33 guns, and 63 bullets—some 11,668 drug users were arrested. In the brothers’ storage facility, police found over 860,000 Tramadol pills, 1,000 Tramadol liquid vials, and 15,000 diazepam pills.

If purchasing drugs online seems relatively easy, well, that’s because it is. And it’s not just simply a case of lone cowboys or rogue Taobao stores leaving their contact numbers online. A whole host of “research chemicals” websites are available in the simplest of searches. Within a few days they deliver what you want, directly to your door, offering almost any payment method: Bitcoin, Moneygram, Western Union, credit, or debit card, some even offer a fapiao into the bargain, which is pure gold for any Chinese on an expense account. These companies claim that their products are intended for medical or research purposes, such as Shangchem.com, for example, which looks, as one might imagine, like a site that sells research chemicals, even claiming it is “for any passionate and motivated organic chemist”. Sites like these are, at least on the face, above board and legal. Yet, in large bright neon pink letters, it also says, “Accelerate Your Drug Discovery.” While these websites claim to be legitimate research companies, at the same time their research chemicals have outré nicknames, such as “Nexus”, “Bro-mo”, “Venus”, or “Benzo Fury”, hardly the language of formal research laboratories.

Many of these chemicals websites are legitimately registered, even going so far as to proudly display all their certificates as required by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) of the Ministry of Public Security. Such certifi cation, while easy to get, is rarely enforced. One website, based in Nanchang, sold only fi ve different chemicals: Ractopamine, a drug used as a feed additive to promote the growth of pigs (banned in China); Hydroylimine hydrochloride and 0-Chlorophyl cyclopentyl ketone, two precursor chemicals used in the synthesis of ketamine (theoretically a vetinary drug, but one of China’s most popular recreational drugs); Phenylacetone, used in the in the production of amphetamine and methamphetamine; and methcathinone, a powerful and addictive psychotropic stimulant. For the methcathinone, the website even came with instructions: “Method of intake: put it on a tin paper, heat it up, it will turn into gas, inhale with a straw,” for what was evidently some very far-out research.

To read the rest of this article click here for Part 2!