The open online drug market is the most blatant example of what international law-enforcement officials say is China’s reluctance to take action as it has emerged as a major player in the global supply chain for synthetic drugs.
SHANGHAI — Ordering illegal drugs from China is as easy as typing on a keyboard.
On guidechem.com, more than 150 Chinese companies sell alpha-PVP, also known as flakka, a stimulant that is illegal in the United States but not in China, and was blamed for 18 recent deaths in one Florida county.
The e-commerce portal Qinjiayuan sells air-conditioners, trampolines and a banned hallucinogen known as spice, which set off a devastating spike in U.S. emergency-room visits in April.
The stimulant mephedrone, sometimes sold as “bath salts,” is banned in China but readily for sale at Nanjing Takanobu Chemical for about $1,400 a pound.
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“I can handle this for you legally or illegally,” a company salesman said by phone when asked about shipping the product overseas from China. “How much do you want?”
In a country that has perfected the art of Internet censorship, the open online drug market is just the most blatant example of what international law-enforcement officials say is China’s reluctance to take action as it has emerged as a major player in the global supply chain for synthetic drugs.
While China says it has made thousands of arrests and “joined hands” with foreign law-enforcement agencies, officials from several countries say Chinese authorities have shown little interest in seriously combating what they see as the drug problems of other countries.
“They just didn’t see what was in it for them to look into their own industries exporting these chemicals,” said Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China.
China’s chemical factories and drug traffickers have exploited this opportunity, turning the nation into a leading producer and exporter of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine, as well as the compounds used to manufacture them, according to seizure and trafficking route data compiled by U.S. and international law-enforcement agencies.
China is now the source of a majority of the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine by Mexican drug traffickers, who produce 90 percent of the meth consumed in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
As governments around the world have stepped up regulation of these so-called precursor chemicals, the Mexican cartels have increasingly turned to Chinese chemical factories.
Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador from 2007 to 2013, said his efforts to persuade Chinese authorities to restrict the export of these chemicals, which are banned in Mexico, came to naught.
“In all my time there, the Chinese never showed any willingness to cooperate on stemming the flow of precursors into Mexico,” he said.
At the same time, clandestine Chinese labs manufacture and export their own meth and other synthetic drugs around the world. In 2013, the police dismantled nearly 390 meth labs in China, according to a United Nations report released in May.
These manufacturers have flourished, in part, because the country’s huge chemical industry is weakly regulated and poorly monitored, officials say, making it easy for criminals to divert chemicals with legitimate uses in making medicine, fertilizer and pesticides into the production of new and dangerous drugs.
The labs have also figured out how to stay one step ahead of laws banning illicit synthetic drugs simply by tweaking a few molecules, creating new and not-yet-illegal drugs.
Several U.S. officials said China was the primary source for new synthetic drugs.
“Hands down China is No. 1,” said a federal law-enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
China has responded to mounting international pressure with several high-profile busts. In April, officials announced the arrest of more than 133,000 people and seizure of 43 tons of illegal narcotics during a five-month anti-drug sweep.
But experts say these actions have failed to significantly impede traffickers.
“China likes everyone to think they’re in control of everything,” said a U.N. official, who asked not to be identified to avoid political repercussions. “But at the end of the day they have an enormous chemical industry and the state doesn’t have the capacity to monitor and control it.”
Even when China does make an arrest, it may not accomplish much.
For more than a decade, Zhang Lei, a 39-year-old Shanghai chemist also known as Eric Chang, manufactured thousands of pounds of synthetic drugs for buyers in 57 countries, earning about $30 million from shipments to the United States alone, U.S. officials say.
Although wanted by Interpol since 2011, Zhang made little effort to conceal his identity or the nature of his work. He handed out business cards with his real name, address and phone number.
A photo of crystalline white powder adorns a Twitter page with his name that links to his company website.
To stay ahead of local and international laws banning new synthetic drugs, his company, China Enriching Chemistry, constantly developed new chemical variations for export, U.S. officials said.
The Chinese police knew about Zhang for years and finally arrested him in 2013 on charges of producing ecstasy.
Last July, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Zhang, his company and three associates under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which froze their U.S. assets.
Yet Zhang’s company is still thriving.
The company’s Shanghai headquarters remains open, and its English-language website, a veritable Amazon of synthetic highs, promises three-day international delivery and full refunds if customs officials seize any shipments.