"Lets go," shouts regular partygoer Wang Guan, who, having just placed a pill in his mouth, descends into a sea of strobe lighting and gyrating bodies, all moving under a haze of cigarette and marijuana smoke.

China’s modern clubbers show little aversion to experimenting with what was once wishfully called a "Western evil".

Relaxation

"Drugs are great," exclaims one 22-year-old who has just served two weeks in jail for smoking marijuana. "They make me relax, chill out, make me feel happy."

Available to her within a half hour of a well-placed phone call, she explains that drugs are found easily in many of China’s major cities.

"Taking drugs is about having a good time with friends, that’s why many people are taking them. It’s also a status symbol, the more expensive the drug, the more it says about the person," she explains without remorse, despite her brief incarceration.

Recent statistics from the Chinese government and the World Health Organisation show there are more than a million recorded, and as many as five million estimated, drug users nationwide.

As a percentage of the 1.4 billion population, China’s numbers barely register. In comparison with Western studies, in 2000, one third of English and Welsh residents aged 16 to 59 said they had tried drugs.

Rapid growth

Its birth only 20 years ago pays testimony to the concerns of health specialists who point to a sudden and growing demand as well as warn of future problems.

"By no means is it as serious as America but already it is a very serious problem, a family problem, a crime-related problem," explains one professor of a research centre on drug usage. 

Requesting anonymity when discussing such a "sensitive" topic, he warns that if the government fails to adequately recognise the problem, "it will explode".

"Some people could be described as shenghuo kongxu – having no direction in life," says Wang, a taxi driver. "Friends have tried heroin, simply for experimentation, but I don’t think they had any idea what they were doing."

Part of an art work by Liu Ding
which looks at the drugs' culture

In a pattern familiar in other countries, drugs provide a means of escape for both rich and poor.

"Even among people with money, they work hard, return home and then just face a wall," says Liu Ding, an artist. Crafting 3-D mushrooms out of empty pharmaceutical capsules, his work explores cultural interpretations of the fungi – in the West as a narcotic, in the East, as a medicine.

"Drugs allow people to dream. They act as a kind of religion and are therefore appealing to everyone in society," he says.

According to experts, although the young and comparatively wealthy partygoers provide the visible face of drug taking, the largest groups of users are the poor and unemployed.

In one government report, 43.4% of registered users had no employment and a further 16% were self employed – which in most cases meant low-income farming.

Drug taking and addiction are believed to be most prominent among the least educated and disadvantaged segment of society – those who have so far lost out on the economic reforms of the past 20 years.

High costs

Already, experimentation and addiction appear to be taking their toll.

One report estimates that the average opiate user spends $540 to 10,000 a month on the habit, a sum that most unskilled workers would struggle to make in a year without resorting to crime.

Statistics from the National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC) suggests that this may already be happening.

Some areas of China blame 60 to 80% of thefts on drug users and label 80% of addicts as being involved in criminal activity, usually related to prostitution.

Although the accuracy of statistics has been questioned, the general trend is not disputed.

"The open policy of China has created unemployment and social pressure with many people unable to find work"

Yang Maobing,
director of drug rehabilitation centre, Yunnan

"The open policy of China has created unemployment and social pressure with many people unable to find work," says Yang Maobing, the director of a drug rehabilitation centre in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan.

Abutting the Golden Triangle where much of the world’s opiate-based drugs are cultivated, Yunnan has an estimated 300,000 users, mostly in poor villages.

"With these people, there is no real guidance, education or social support. Many do not even know what effects drugs can have on them or that you can become addicted. Turning to crime is an aspect of this addiction," added Yang Maobing to Aljazeera.net.

The central government, aware of the potential fragility of its reforms and the lessons shown from Western countries where drugs have assimilated themselves into popular culture, has long sought to act firm on the question of drug abuse casting both dealer and user in the mould of a criminal.

Regular reporting of drug seizures, arrests and executions of dealers can be found in the press.

Between January and October 2003, according to government figures, 281kg of heroin and 429kg of opium were seized in the Golden Triangle border region.

At a recent press conference, NNCC Deputy Director Luo Feng promised to strengthen multi-national anti-drug cooperation work.

At present, when drug users are caught, they can expect a minimum two weeks in jail without trial followed by several months in a rehabilitation centre.

The practical benefits of this system have yet to manifest themselves.

According to the professor at the research centre on drug usage, there is a 94% relapse rate among patients because such centres simply prevent access to drugs, without focussing on addressing the craving or reasons for use.

"It is important that we improve the quality of patient care. We have tried using acupuncture and Chinese medicine but without lasting effect, nor do we have any network of post recovery psychologists," he says.

Change of direction

A strategy rethink is on the table, although tackling drug abuse may not be the primary motivation behind it.

The question of HIV/AIDS, long a taboo topic in Chinese politics, has recently become front-page news.

Pictures of Premier Wen Jiabao meeting AIDS patients have been accompanied by a shift in policy towards how drugs should be dealt with, in particular, drug user rehabilitation.

Of the five million estimated users, between 165,000 and 595,000 will statistically be HIV positive due to sharing needles.

A clean needle exchange policy with no questions asked is being established along with the use of methadone – a less addictive drug than heroin clinically administered in ever-weaker doses - in rehabilitation centres to help wean people off the drug.

"It is amazing the changes we are seeing. It would have been unthinkable only a few years ago"

Tim Manchester,
author of a white paper on HIV/AIDS and drug use

"It is amazing the changes we are seeing. It would have been unthinkable only a few years ago," says Tim Manchester, author of a white paper on HIV/AIDS and drug use. "Such pragmatism and so refreshing. The US would certainly not change like this."

At Yang Maobing’s clinic in Yunnan, they use a method perfected in America called Daytop.

Based on voluntary principles it goes from initial detoxification using methadone to social reintegration using the clinic's car-wash service, which provides menial but steady work for those who might otherwise have none.

"Here, we only have a relapse rate of 70% for heroin. The problem is getting people back into society as often they will have no friends or family to support them, and little chance of getting a job," says Yang Maobing.

Image problem

Currently housing more than 80 addicts, the criminal image of drug users is proving difficult to overcome.

This, believes Manchester, is where a real shift in attitudes needs to occur – to see the drug user as a victim who needs help, not as a criminal who should be ostracised.

"Many officials either do not yet recognise that people are afraid of coming forward for help or they are concerned about how to implement such change," says Manchester.

"We had officials in Yunnan saying, 'how can we make this work – how can we now appear soft on drug users after saying to the public that they are criminals?'" he says.

Still in a trial stage, adjustment to a phenomenon that was non-existent 20 years ago is by no means complete.

For most, drugs and their effects are still an alien concept – an ignorance that can be both refreshing and worrying.

However, regardless of economic status, trends across society point to increasing contact with and use of drugs, a trend that if the West is a benchmark to go by, may prove difficult to impede.