A bizarre account of laughing-gas addiction by a female student who returned from the US confined to a wheelchair has renewed anxiety over the perils of study abroad, overlooking how boredom and alienation have made many young Chinese—particularly women—susceptible to drug abuse.
While nitrous oxide is far from the gravest threat, the National Narcotics Control Commission has reported a 6.8 percent annual increase in narcotics use among 18-35 year olds, a population of users estimated to be 1.46 million (the report also claims a national “user population” of only 2.5 million, though China acknowledged in 2015 that at least 14 million people, approximately one percent of its population, have used drugs).
Experts warn that underreporting is a major issue, especially among women, due to social stigma. A report from the Cabin, a rehabilitation center in Thailand’s Chiang Mai, suggests that Chinese women “receive less attention and more shame if they have an addiction.” Reasons for include the “increasing economic independence…pressure from their work, family or society and they need something to help them release the pressure,” said Shen Tingting, Director of Advocacy, Policy, and Research at health advocacy NGO Asia Catalyst.
“There is also a sharp increase of people who use drugs in rural areas,” Shen told TWOC. “In the past, drug users have been concentrated in cities.” Widespread broadband and smartphone use have facilitated the availability of “relatively cheap” synthetic drugs, Shen said, with encrypted transactions and code-worded conversations on numerous chat apps making illegal transactions difficult for police to track.
Women are not only increasingly likely to develop an addiction, but are more susceptible to traffickers. Last month, the Ministry of Public Security reported “a tendency for drug traffickers to make use of ‘special vulnerable groups’, such as minors, pregnant, and breast-feeding women.” Fenghuang Road, a documentary released in 2013, depicted how female addicts in Guangdong province funded their habit with prostitution and insurance scams.
A growing female prison population, up 46 percent over the last decade (compared to 10 percent with males), reflects this rise—most are convicted for non-violent crimes such as smuggling.
In Hong Kong, methamphetamine, also known as ice or crystal meth, is most likely to be used by women under 21, to combat boredom, depression, or stress. Local charity Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers told South China Morning Post that, while cocaine is traditionally associated with men, the organization has been supporting an increasing number of women. Angelique Tam, executive director of the charity, added that the problem is likely to be even bigger, “because cultural barriers prevented some addicts from seeking help.”
The spread of “party drugs” meanwhile reflects the growing affluence and changing tastes of mainland users. While heroin is the chief concern for authorities, synthetic and “luxury” drugs, such as coke, meth, ketamine and ecstasy, account for 32.7 percent of registered users. In June, branches of the All China Women’s Federations held anti-drug activities and workshops to promote the UN’s Listen First initiative against use among children, targeting women in particular.
While stories like Lin Nan (pseudonym) and her harrowing addiction to laughing gas draw attention, they distort the problem. Chronic, regular use of nitrous oxide can eventually cause nerve damage, even paralysis, but such cases are extremely unusual; the real dangers, the reports suggest, are far more everyday.