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Psychonauts with Chinese characteristics

In 2004, when I was seventeen years old and invested in the idea that young people should experiment with psychedelic drugs, I checked into a motel on Albert Street in Regina, Saskatchewan; sprinkled a research chemical called α-Methyltryptamine from a tinfoil wrap onto a pair of Wendy’s chicken tenders; and rinsed the foul taste out of my mouth with a pony of Black Velvet rye. In another era, I would have chosen LSD, that most famous of hallucinogens, but my potential connections could provide only dubious rumors of its availability. Instead, I downed Robitussin cough syrup for a mild dissociative trip, contemplated the herbal highs waiting in packets of morning glory seeds at the big box garden center, and doggedly pursued any leads on psilocybin mushrooms for sale in my small town. I was saved in the end by the pharmaceutical manufacturing centers of China. Their laboratories were willing to ship overseas all manner of psychedelic tryptamines and phenethylamines as replacements for conventional hallucinogens, as well as speedy entactogens that substituted for MDMA and 2C-B, experimental dissociatives, and, eventually, lysergamides that were cousin compounds to the acid that was so hard to find. There is no way to know for sure, but it is likely that the α-Methyltryptamine I swallowed in Saskatchewan came from a laboratory in Shanghai or Zhejiang. It was not LSD, but it was good enough. The liquor tamed the adrenergic effects so that I could lay back on the papery motel comforter, ride out the nausea, close my eyes, and enjoy the colorful, meaningless hallucinations. I missed the hardcore show that had been my excuse to drive into the city.

When I was twenty-two years old, in a small city on the border of Jiangsu and Shandong, I waited in a subterranean internet bar for a delivery after a brief chat with a local entrepreneur in a group on QQ, the online chat service that dominated before the arrival of WeChat. The bag I received contained roughly a half gram of a crystalline substance I was given to understand was a novel dissociative drug from a nearby laboratory. Likely methoxetamine or 2-fluorodeschloroketamine, but perhaps some mixture of more exotic arylcyclohexylamines like 3-MeO-PCP and 2-Oxo-PCE, it was to be taken, I was advised, in the same manner as ketamine, which had become hard to find in China. First associated, like MDMA, with expatriates in Hong Kong, ketamine crossed into the Shenzhen party scene in the early 2000s, becoming China’s preeminent recreational drug. As users looked for a more reliable supplement to Indian ketamine smuggled through Hong Kong, the stockpiles produced by state-owned factories for use as an anesthetic during the border war with Vietnam were tapped and then depleted. A crackdown on corruption and increased law enforcement interest in synthetic party drugs made it infeasible to bribe pharmaceutical bosses to use their licenses to make more. But some brave soul realized they could take advantage of the slow pace at which laws against analogues were promulgated by calling up a local laboratory and giving the world a replacement, one I immediately took up a nostril as I leaned back in a rubbery office chair placed in front of one of the dozens of computers that filled the dim underground space of the internet bar, perfumed with the steam of instant noodles. Homesick and euphoric, I wrote a poem comparing my first girlfriend—whose pale skin was so translucent in my visions that I could glimpse her intestines churn—to a cow with a window installed in its side that I had once seen at Agribition, the annual festival of farm equipment and livestock held in the Agridome, back in Regina.

Drug use is treated not as a crime but handled according to a separate category for public security violations.

When I was twenty-eight years old, attending a screening of Beetlejuice in a former state-run factory in Guangzhou that had been converted into an art space, the wife of a local sculptor-turned-real-estate-investor offered me a piece of blotter paper. Containing 1P-LSD, one of several LSD analogues that had escaped being scheduled in China as a restricted narcotic, the blotter was the hallucinogenic equivalent of a counterfeit Goyard wallet. Weak enforcement of intellectual property law does not fully explain why replica pocketbooks are made in China; the real reason is that the factories surrounding Shenzhen and Guangzhou can most efficiently turn out replicas that surpass the quality of the original. Like the α-Methyltryptamine and methoxetamine, 1P-LSD was made in China partly for legal reasons but more crucially because of the country’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of human talent and capacity for innovation in manufacturing, prowess used to produce a replacement—like so many other things consumed in the postindustrial West—for a product that had been wiped out from the market.

Americans like to say that they used to make things in America, including LSD. That was before the long drought, which has been attributed both by law enforcement and counterculture mythology to the arrests in 1996 and 2000, respectively, of Nicholas Sand and William Leonard Pickard, the greatest outlaw manufacturers of the hallucinogen, as well as to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, which dispersed the open-air drug market that previously tailed Grateful Dead shows. There is perhaps some truth to this apocryphal story. Given the expertise and inputs required to synthesize LSD, the arrests of the chemists cut production severely, and the loss of a reliable distribution network was crucial. But this trivia papers over a story about the eventual arrival of Chinese entrepreneurs to fill the gap left by the decline of American manufacturing.

This is not an unfamiliar narrative: the demands of the market—a once-narrow slice of hobbyist psychonauts and recreational dabblers—grew too large for the established players to keep pace, and its tastes were more diverse than they were interested in catering to. Dutch laboratories, Indian pharmaceutical companies, and Central American traffickers stepped in to give the people what they wanted—until the Chinese took over. This process has happened in other illicit drug markets, of course, going back at least to the first bans on heroin and morphine following the International Opium Convention of 1912 (signed by major European powers, the United States, Russia, Siam, China, and Persia), when savvy producers in Shanghai and other production hubs began running their opium batches through alternate processes to yield quasi-legal alternatives. More recently, synthetic cannabinoids, many of which come from China, have offered a workaround to laws prohibiting cannabis. And everyone knows the rise of Purdue’s street-ready tablets crashed global illicit opium production, meaning that when OxyContin began to disappear, fentanyl from China was an easy solution.

But the triumphs of Chinese manufacturing are most evident for me when considering a certain type of drug: not those that fulfill the requirements of addiction or the preferences of conventional recreational users, but substances from the overlapping categories of hallucinogens, dissociatives, and entactogens sought out by hobbyists worldwide. (Hobbyist being the most appropriate word for frequent and passionate consumers of psychoactive drugs who would bristle at being called partyers or addicts.) Here, the successes of Chinese manufacturing are most important, since these drugs were always unreliable in supply and most vulnerable to shifts in taste—including among Chinese hobbyists, who tend, like their global peers, to be well-educated, middle-class young adults, and are most likely to be found in the highly developed cities on the coast. The laboratories of the Chinese heartlands of pharmaceutical manufacturing in the Pearl and Yangtze River Deltas produced new drugs as quickly as Shein produced new fashions. A generation was clothed and transported and entertained by goods assembled by the hands of their peers in steamy factory towns like those outside Dongguan or Ningbo. They were educated and distracted, injured and cured, by chemicals that came from the same types of places.

Domestic Consumers

A minority of Western hobbyists have tapped a dark web connection for exotic substances, like the novel dissociative methoxetamine; boutique hallucinogens, like the trimethoxyamphetamines that are chemical cousins of mescaline; and the NBOMes, whose vivid hallucinations and heart-pounding rush seem to make up for their proven neurotoxicity. This minority must grasp what foreign manufacturing means for our illicit drug diet, at least in broad terms, in the same way anyone who has shopped online in the last decade has necessarily come to terms with what the combination of dropshipping, cheap labor, and algorithmic recommendations has done to the wider world of material goods and consumer lifestyles. Everyone else likely has at least a sense, if only from fentanyl’s central role in another Cold War, of where these drugs come from (quite often but not always China) and why their production is able to continue, the lists of scheduled narcotics being unable to catch every possible molecular riff on a controlled substance.

The bag I received contained roughly a half gram of a crystalline substance I was given to understand was a novel dissociative drug from a nearby laboratory.

Outside of a few research papers, though, not much has been written about what any of this means in the country that actually makes the stuff. Drug enforcement agents, policy researchers, and online folklorists interested in the habits of Western users can harvest data from Reddit and Erowid, but that is nearly impossible for Chinese drug scenes, since mentions of illicit substances are ruthlessly scrubbed on digital platforms. Most of the useful information on the topic is locked up in academic papers that are hard for outsiders to access. On-the-ground inspection is difficult, given that police have become very good at wrapping up anyone with an interest in getting high.

In addition to methods familiar to Americans—border control, raids on clandestine laboratories, sting operations, and propaganda campaigns—Chinese authorities have cracked down by building up a system for treating addicts. Drug use is treated not as a crime but handled according to a separate category for public security violations, with users registered by police and sent for compulsory treatment of appropriate intensity, ranging from outpatient rehab to locked facilities. The system has been criticized for the leeway it gives police in adding people to databases of registered users (possession of personal-use amounts of illicit drugs is the usual reason, but buying needles, holding onto a pipe, or frequenting areas of high drug traffic can be enough); getting off the list is notoriously difficult. Just like anywhere else, guilt, shame, and the fear of looking like a narcissist curb public admissions of drug use, but speaking and writing openly about drug use in China is also considered unpatriotic and politically suspect. Central to the country’s “century of humiliation” was the collaboration of a comprador elite with foreign narcotics pushers—the British, chiefly, but also later, the Japanese—on whose expulsion or annihilation the ruling party’s legitimacy is partly based.

We are left with myths. China is not free, so the Chinese cannot take drugs—except for the million miserable souls on the government’s official rolls of registered drug addicts. (Living on the margins of society, and often on the periphery of the empire in northeastern or southwestern borderlands, they take fixes of heroin and methamphetamine transported from the Golden Triangle, an eternally ungovernable region whose ethnic militias and gangster cliques have become the main source not only of opium derivatives but also synthetic stimulants.) These myths support others. The West can only have undergone a reversal of the Opium Wars, after all, if the Chinese sent their fentanyl and never used it for themselves.

But have you never been offered hashish in Xiaobei at 3 a.m.? Do you not recall that you could order an ashtray preloaded with lines of ketamine at Armani Bar in Xuzhou? Weren’t you there that night when those girls in Xintiandi were taking selfies with gel tabs on the tips of their tongues? Didn’t I ever tell you the story of Jia Qin—“Ketamine Kid” was his nickname—who idolized Tony Montana and Liu Zhaohua, the Fujianese methamphetamine manufacturer, and hoped to build a synthetic drug empire from his chemistry experiments? I’m sure I explained that one of the reasons for Chinese internet users to vault the Great Firewall onto Western social media platforms is to hunt for local sellers of illicit drugs. Of course, Xiaobei has since been sanitized; Armani was shuttered; maybe the girls in Xintiandi are sober now; Jia Qin, already having done his four years in prison, is hopefully gainfully employed; and the Chinese-language drug trade on X now seems to be dominated by sellers of herbal cures for impotence.

Xi Jinping might claim to have put his team ahead in the war on drugs with heavy-handed policing—and by taming the corruption which fed so much of the chaos, sending the millions-strong floating population of workers back to their hometowns, and investing heavily in rural welfare projects. But the story of a substance-sober China is belied by regular celebrity dope scandals, publicly available court judgments, and psychonauts who remain on QQ, even if they must communicate in increasingly impenetrable coded language.


A purple illustration of a different person sitting on a toilet holds a key with a green granular substance on it, and a rolled joint in the other hand. At the very top, a long line of the green granular substance sits with a straw at the right hand side, positioned to snort.
© Derek Zheng

Our Substances, Ourselves

There is something to be learned from the American hobbyist’s taste in designer drugs. In a country where pharmaceutical cures for mental illness, as well as those for chronic, nonclinical misery, are heavily marketed, psychonauts have been replaced by young people looking for inexpensive self-medication solutions. They use dark web benzodiazepines because they are cheaper and more reliable than prescriptions. When there are chronic shortages of ADHD medications, like dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate, trade heats up in obscure stimulants never approved for human consumption. There is interest in psychedelics as an alternative to antidepressants. Now that the pill mills are largely a thing of the past, but the dope supply is compromised, there is a market for nitazenes and other opioids.

Americans like to say that they used to make things in America, including LSD.

Likewise, a quick survey of what’s for sale in Chinese nightclubs and online groups could reveal something about the state of the nation. In a country that never tolerated or encouraged widespread prescription addiction (opioids and benzodiazepines but also stimulants and hypnotic sedatives), one where addicts have a fairly reliable supply of unadulterated heroin and methamphetamine from Golden Triangle suppliers taking advantage of borderlands corruption and premodern routes across heavily forested highlands, there is less of a need for alternatives to the pharmacy or black market.

So, what do Chinese young people want? To “lie flat,” we are informed by Western sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which is to take a relaxed attitude toward their obligations as much as possible. For most, this is the product of high levels of youth unemployment; for a minority, it means email jobs that allow travel to Dali and Lhasa. That minority is who is taking psychedelics, generally. (The sculptor’s wife from the Beetlejuice screening fits with that group, as does another art world friend, who discreetly hosts what could in dated counterculture parlance be called “happenings,” replete with psychedelics, at her second home in rural Hebei.) The psychedelic hobby requires disposable income, digital literacy, leisure, and the privacy of life in a decent residential compound, but hallucinogens are also less expensive than a week at an eco-lodge in Yunnan. Taking a sabbatical from a position at Baidu, you might find yourself on a cycling expedition to Tibet—or you could just trip quickly and cheaply on a mail order dose of O-acetylpsilocin, another ambiguously legal, incredibly powerful psychoactive drug available from Chinese labs.

There is not much risk, either, since most popular psychedelics escaped joining the large number of novel psychoactive substances added to lists of scheduled narcotics after 2015 (the focus was on fentanyl analogues being shipped overseas and derivatives of addictive stimulants created for local addicts). ALD-52 and 1P-LSD are still not scheduled drugs and remain popular, a Chinese friend adjacent to the hobbyist world and studying in Canada informed me, but NBOMes, several of which have become controlled substances, seem to have faded from the market. She mules blotter, as well as hormone replacement therapy drugs back from China to Toronto, mostly for international Chinese students. (HRT, also made in China, is in demand with the same clientele.) The substance on the paper doesn’t particularly matter, except for the more committed hobbyists. Nobody asks for anything by name.

In a country where the recreational drug market was once dominated by high-purity ketamine, with a market, also, for previously legal replacements like methoxetamine and 2-fluorodeschloroketamine—scheduled in 2015, six years after I received that bag in the internet bar—dissociatives are still popular. This is a quirk of the local drug market: dissociatives are disorienting and psychologically transformative in the dosages preferred in the West, but they are taken conservatively in China for a cheap, low-key buzz, often combined with liquor. That is how I took it, too, I admit. The first or second time was in a third-tier city in Jiangsu, drinking Red Label and iced tea with two men who summoned me and the club’s dancer, an Uzbek woman with Russian features who periodically stood on the bar to shimmy in a puddle of grain alcohol the bartender would light on fire, the wobbling blue flame obscuring her feet. As we took lines out of a Carlsberg-branded ashtray, they didn’t seem to be pursuing the oblivion of the k-hole; it was about getting looser on the dancefloor and intensifying expensive gulps of imported liquor.

Maybe because the war on methamphetamine is being won in China, at least to the extent that urban recreational users find it hard to get their hands on ice, other synthetic stimulants are popular. Cathinones, the preferred drug of pockets of Shanxi peasant laborers, might also circulate through Shanghai and Chengdu gay scenes with a preference for stimulants, or pop up in Guangzhou nightclubs when MDMA can’t be found. An American acquaintance in Guangzhou has lived with a serious stimulant habit since before he arrived in China and avoids regular police sweeps of illicit drug consumption hot spots by buying his dope through a gay hookup app. He says that he uses his status as a rare foreign top to push potential partners to bring with them anything he might desire. The substances he purchases come under numerous names—ranging from suggestive (loose translations might be “red balls” or “climax”) to simplistically elemental (“water,” “ice,” “fire”)—but all manage to get him off.

Buyer’s Market

Still, it is important not to exaggerate when trying to tear down myths. The men and women waging the war on drugs in China are not facing the same stakes as those in the United States, where annual drug-overdose deaths broke a hundred thousand last year. The number of addicts registered every year has declined over the past five years in China, and recreational users are far rarer than in Western nations. Pan Suiming, a retired researcher at Renmin University, looked at available official numbers and brought in his experience with sexual minority communities, who are among the heavier users of street drugs, to arrive at a figure of twenty-six million Chinese people between the age of twenty and forty-nine having tried drugs in their lifetimes as of 2014. That would be a less than one percent lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use for the age group: far lower than comparable figures from recent surveys of American young adults, which reveal, among other things, that 14 percent of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds had taken illicit drugs in 2021, and 38 percent of those eighteen to twenty-five. Even in zones of the country reputedly awash in drugs, numbers are low: a survey of Yunnan residents fifteen to sixty-four years of age, living right beside the Golden Triangle, found the prevalence rate of methamphetamine use at 0.48 percent in 2015. Most users were “male, low educated, and peasants,” and nearly half were ethnic minorities—something to keep in mind when talking about the drug problem in China. Many addicts, whether registered or unregistered by the state, are not from a disaffected urban working class; they are poor people in impoverished rural regions, often within walking distance of poppy-growing and methamphetamine-producing areas of the Golden Triangle, or in the depopulating and deindustrializing northeast.

People get high in China for the same vague reasons that they have throughout most of the history of industrialized society.

The recreational drug hobbyist lives in a bubble disconnected from official numbers and with a mythology distinct from the one ruling state antidrug material or popular consensus. This is true in Western scenes, where people talk as if a psychedelic renaissance is underway; it is true in Chinese scenes, as well. I recall the young man who pulled out a marijuana cigarette in a Nanjing nightclub many years ago and lit it while informing me that this university town in Central China was a hotbed of stoners, who could flaunt narcotics law by virtue of their numbers. He was not chastised by venue staff or the cops that roamed the bar street, but that was likely due to nobody being familiar with the smell of cannabis. I never saw a joint lit in the city, and I found the students, like students everywhere else in the country, most fond of cheap beer.

As far as those fantastic innovations in recreational drug manufacturing, it’s hard to say how many might use them, or have used them previously. Many of these substances don’t frequently show up in publicly available law enforcement notices because they are still legal, in part because no one manufacturing them intended them for human consumption. While the drugs are risky experiments in individual pharmokinetics, reports from emergency room physicians usually still lag public appetites. The roll of registered addicts includes their drugs of choice, but categories are limited. Wastewater-based epidemiology could be helpful, but researchers don’t appear to check the sewage for metabolites of the most obscure substances. Sentencing files obtained from criminal cases are available to researchers, but, again, they capture only the movement of illegal or controlled psychoactive substances, like methcathinone and ketamine. (The latter has steadily decreased in popularity in recent years, perhaps because of the Chinese-language antidrug materials that play up the fact that, due to the lower urinary tract problems it can cause, some heavy users are forced to wear diapers for the rest of their lives.) We are left with a few experiences publicly collected online about the ketamine-heavy glory days of hobbyist drug use in China, before the law caught up with experimental substances, and also what can be discovered by trawling clandestine online chats or pressing friends for information.

Whatever the drug use that does exist can tell us about China, it is not that there is an undercurrent of resistance. We shouldn’t mistake recreational drug use for a truer liberty. No matter what anybody says, the practice is apolitical. People get high in China for the same vague reasons that they have throughout most of the history of industrialized society. This drive—to experience euphoria or oblivion, numbness or heightened intensity of feeling—is universal, if still worth contemplating.

More pressing is understanding how the means by which these drives are exploited and satisfied have also become omnipresent. This is true not only for illicit drugs and artisanal hallucinogens but for all things. What isn’t caught today in the overlapping webs of global commerce and logistics networks, of which Shanghai laboratories (or cartel-headed operations in Culiacán, or Brabant hallucinogen manufacturers) are only a node? What pastime has not been altered irrevocably by the terrifying power of digital networks? It is familiar to confess to the transformative experience of a trip, even one somewhat embarrassingly delivered in a Regina motel by novel psychoactive substances nestled in crisp Wendy’s breading. More alien at the time, and now more quotidian than ever, is how the drugs that got me there got to me.