( these are the story highlights that are relevant to this blog )
Young, rich and brimming with energy, Eric embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of modern China. He sits at his desk beneath a cabinet of spirits and cigars that he dispenses liberally to his overseas clients while secretaries totter in and out carrying samples and price lists.
Eric, 35, wears designer clothes, drives a Buick SUV and works such long hours his wife moans that he treats the luxury villa where they live like a hotel. But for all his infectious charm as he chats and jokes at his offi ce in an up-market Shanghai apartment block, there is a sinister side to the business that has made this chemistry graduate conspicuously wealthy.
With a laboratory near the city’s international airport (whose neighbours include offices of Glaxo Smith Kline, Novartis and Astra Zeneca) and a factory with 65 workers three hours from Shanghai, Eric claims his company manufactures and ships hundreds of kilograms of drugs to Britain every week.
Despite the ban on mephedrone and other related-compounds, Eric and many other Chinese businessmen like him are ahead of the game. They beat customs controls using know-how and corruption and are creating and preparing new drugs that will deliberately dodge our classifications and continue to offer profitable, legal kicks in the UK.
Posing as customers, we were shown around his laboratory and witnessed a sophisticated and ruthless export industry that is indifferent to the harm and addiction its products cause. It is driven instead by modern China’s guiding light: money.
UK customs have recently been very strict and lots of packages from China and India are stopped and seized. It is in the media and on the TV and a lot of our customers are worried. But we assure them there is no risk for them.’
He then reveals how his company has already been avoiding customs checks in the UK by sending packages into Britain via ‘soft’ third countries in the EU.
‘We have agents in Europe so we can send to Ireland, Austria, Spain and Italy. Then the package will be re-sent to the UK from those countries. If the package comes from outside Europe there might be trouble. Within Europe, the UK customs normally will not check.’
Even if the packages were stopped, he promises us, the orders would be honoured.
‘If it is stopped we always refund or reship. That is why we have so many customers in the UK. There is no risk for them.’
Eric’s company sends its drugs to Britain by express courier. At the entrance to his office, barrels of MDPV – a potent and addictive stimulant that was banned along with mephedrone on April 16 – are piled up alongside dozens of one-kilo packages sitting ready to be taken to the airport.
Posing as large, London-based wholesalers of legal highs, we had insisted on a visit to the lab before making our order – for 10kg of MDPV every month for a year. Eric says our order is almost laughably small: ‘It amounts to 120kg a year. I have that much in my office now. Every month we produce two tons.’
However, our order still amounts to 200,000 doses monthly, and 2.4 million doses annually.
Even with shipment via a European country, packages are delivered in three to four days from the time payment hits his account, he says, adding with a knowing grin: ‘Some packages we send directly to the UK. We have our own methods.’
The boom in demand for legal highs in the UK has generated a huge new revenue stream for Eric’s company.
‘It has all happened in the past two years and the demand from the UK and other countries just keeps increasing,’ he says.
Set up seven years ago, his lab was already doing brisk international business turning out five or six new generic drugs a year for worldwide sales. These ranged from anti-retroviral drugs for HIV sufferers and heart-disease drugs to fake Viagra.
Eric said there was no problem in continuing to send the drug to the UK, promising to fulfil our 12-month order. What’s more, Eric told us that he is developing a new drug to ship to the UK after this month’s ban.
At his company’s laboratory, the size of a small flat, a team of young scientists in white coats and face masks work on new formulas. Dipping his nose into a sample bag of white powder, Eric says: ‘I can’t tell you the name of this. It is going to be very popular and your buyers will be very interested in this.’
Scooping out a pinch between his fingers he says: ‘We’ve been working on this for some time. It is almost perfect and ready to ship. The purity is 99.9 per cent. If you look at it, you can see it is snow white. That shows how pure it is.’
Inside the laboratory, with huge bell jars at one end, a small team of scientists appear to be working on a dozen different chemical processes at once. When we point out the extraordinary variety of colours in one of the bell jars and compare it to an oil painting, Eric laughs.
‘You must be artists,’ he says. ‘When you look at that jar, you see colours. When I look at it, I see only orders and money.’
Driving us from his laboratory back to his downtown office in the hope of sealing another overseas order, Eric was in a hurry to move on to the next deal.
‘I have no time for holidays. I am working all the time,’ he says.
Eric, though, like all the most successful drug dealers, chooses not to get high on his own supply. His only vice is cans of Red Bull.
‘I have a lot of business on my hands. I need all the energy I can get,’ he says.
For the past year, the drug market in the UK has been teetering on the edge of complete anarchy. Drug laws look impotent in the face of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of dealers, users and chemists. We have ended up in a situation where anyone of any age can buy limitless amounts of powerful drugs on the high street or on the internet, and – feasibly – consume it in front of a police officer with little chance of prosecution.