China has become a world heavyweight in manufacturing synthetic drugs, which have flourished in a country with a giant chemical industry, industrious organized criminal groups and borders busy with trade.
But choking off the supply of Chinese-made drugs, including laboratory-made opioids fuelling a fentanyl overdose crisis in North America, will be difficult enough that countries suffering the effects of Chinese-made drugs would do better to persuade their own people not to consume them.
That's the grim conclusion of the United Nations, whose 2017 World Drug Report shows the ascendancy of Asia in the narcotics trade. In 2015, for the first time, it eclipsed North America as the top spot for seizures of methamphetamine. It has also become a key haven for the manufacture of new psychoactive substances, the laboratory-made drugs such asfentanyl and synthetic marijuana that are rising in popularity.
Last year, 2,458 Canadians died of opioid overdoses, the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated. In the United States, overdose deaths have increased more than three-fold since 1999; in 2015, deaths related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rose 72 per cent.
China has pledged co-operation with Canada and the U.S. to fight fentanyl production, and trumpeted major meth busts in partnership with authorities in Australia and New Zealand.
But hoping Chinese police and border officials can solve the problem is unlikely to be an effective strategy, said Jeremy Douglas, the southeast Asia and Pacific regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"If the demand for fentanyl remains at the level it's at, the demand is going to be met," he added.
"At the end of the day, North America needs a demand reduction strategy, because stopping the supply is going to be extremely difficult – and probably increasingly difficult."
Opioids are a global scourge, accounting for 70 per cent of the years of healthy human life lost by people with drug disorders last year, the UN found in its report, which offers an annual snapshot of the world's narcotics.
Some 250 million people used drugs at least once in 2015, the year profiled in the report; the most popular was marijuana, with 183 million users. About 30-million people, just under the population of Canada, suffer from serious "drug use disorders." Only one out of six of those people receives treatment. Though men make up the bulk of drug users, the number of women experiencing drug problems is rising more quickly.
Another change: The use of sophisticated Internet tools, such as Dark Web drug purchases using crypto-currencies, has grown at rates of 50-per-cent in recent years, though it remains a minor part of the overall drug trade.
The RCMP has nonetheless pointed to such hidden transactions as an obstacle to jointly investigate shipments from China, a country that sits at the heart of Asia's rising drug dependency.
China's manufacturing apparatus means shipping routes already place it at the centre of large volumes of global trade, into which small drug shipments can easily be hidden.
At the same time, regional narcotics demand has been surging, as rising wealth across Asia underpins a shift in the narcotics industry that has shaken the world. Rather than chase a smaller number of high-margin consumers, local drugmakers have pursued a volume business – and in the process built outsized manufacturing capacity.
The rise of synthetic drugs has made for a perfect fit. No longer do soil conditions or climate matter. With no plants involved, drugs can be made wherever there are talented people with access to chemicals, tools and logistics. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in China, whose makers and sellers of drugs have also been caught up in a wave of creativity.
The number of available synthetic drugs has exploded, with countries reporting 739 different new psychoactive substances to the UN between 2009 and 2016, including 70 that emerged last year alone.
Such drugs "are proliferating at an unprecedented rate and pose a significant risk to public health and a challenge to drug policy," the UN reported.
"We're definitely not going to police our way out of this," said John Coyne, a former Australian Federal Police intelligence agent, who is now head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Harm reduction and drug education are better strategies, he said.
But there is also a role for smart enforcement, he added. China is already well ahead of the international community in outlawing new drugs, including potent variations of fentanyl.
"The Chinese in the next five to 10 years will increase the security of their supply chains for the production of chemical precursors involved in illicit drugs. I think it's inevitable they will improve that," Mr. Coyne said.
The question then: "where will it go next?"
India, with its large chemical industry, is one possibility. "Now is the time the global community should be working with the Indians around their chemical and pharmaceutical markets, before they do become a problem," Mr. Coyne said.
There is also risk that, if authorities succeed in shutting down Chinese production, it will re-emerge closer to home. With "synthetic drugs, traditionally we find manufacturers close to consumer markets," said Justice Tettey, chief of the laboratory and scientific section at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime division of policy analysis. "Supply of these substances could come right up to our doorsteps."
Which is why, he said, battling consumption is so important.
"At the end of the day, it's a consumer market."