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'You want smoke? Blow?'

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing — The call, more of a whisper, comes from the shadows: "Hey man, what you looking for? You want something?"

The speaker emerges into the light and falls into stride with his potential customer, keeping his head down and his patter low-key: "You want smoke? Blow? What you want?"

It's a rainy, cool night, which keeps pedestrian traffic to a minimum on Nan Jiuba JieÍ, a twisty alley of hip bars and cafÚs in SanlitunÍ, Beijng's busiest nightclub district, but that doesn't mean a night off for a man in his mid-30s who calls himself Frank.

Frank's base appears to be the corner beside a small bar that is nearly shaking in time with the hip-hop blasting from its overmatched sound system. Inside, a few black men are downing tequila shots, and outside, a few steps away are perhaps a dozen more, eyeing passersby and making the universal sales pitch.

"I work every night," Frank says with a shrug. "Right now, business is not so good."

From Nigeria, with a clipped accent, he keeps it pretty vague. He says he's in the import-export business and has been travelling between Africa and China for three years. Dealing is just something he does when he has down time.

Told that selling drugs on the street in an authoritarian state — and as member of a visible minority, no less — seems like a high-risk undertaking, he smiles. "I'm careful," he says. "I don't sell to just anybody."

Recreational drug use in China has a long history, predating the mid-19th-century Opium Wars. China claims it was largely eradicated after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, but as it opened its doors to trade in the 1980s and 1990s, drugs waltzed back in.

Heroin has long been a problem. An estimated 60 tonnes a year are smuggled in overland from Myanmar. Lately, authorities have tracked a strong upsurge in "ice" (methamphetamine) and other manufactured drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine, popular in the growing club scene.

China has upped its anti-drug police force to 17,000, and spent the equivalent of nearly $100-million on law enforcement over the past five years. And while it's not clear how they might apply to foreign nationals like Frank, the penalties for selling, importing, manufacturing or smuggling illegal drugs are stiff.

Every June in recent years, China has marked the United Nations International Anti-Drugs Day by executing dozens of drug dealers and sentencing many more to death. It's a tradition that has drawn the ire of Amnesty International, but probably won't stop soon.

"The Chinese masses applaud giving the death penalty to drug traffickers," said Yang FengruiÍ, director of the Ministry of Public Security's anti-drug bureau.

But the harsh penalties don't seem to be much of a deterrent. The ministry's most recent statistics count more than one million addicts registered by officials, compared with about 148,000 in 1991. Independent reports say the real numbers are much higher.

"You have to know what you're doing," Frank shrugs again. "It's supply and demand."

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