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Heroin Increasingly Popular Among Chinese Teenagers - 2002-02-21

China is facing a growing drug problem. Officials are battling the drug trade with outdated resources, and that means a growing number of addicts - a record 900,000 registered last year. China's frontline in the drug battle is in Yunnan Province, which borders the world's biggest drug-producing region known as the Golden Triangle. VOA Correspondent Leta Hong Fincher just visited Yunnan Province, and brings us the second in her three-part series on drugs in China.

One day after finishing the fifth grade, 13-year-old Li Mei went to a classmate's house in Xuanwei, northern Yunnan Province. There she met some older teenagers shooting up heroin. Her life has never been the same.

Now, two years later, Li Mei is a hardened heroin addict at the age of 15, and an inmate at the Kunming Compulsory Drug Detoxification Center, outside Yunnan's capital.

She says her friends allowed her to shoot up for free the first time. A week later, she was hooked, and had to find ways to pay for her habit.

Li Mei has the physique of an 11-year-old child. But her bloodshot eyes, sun-weathered face and anxious expression betray some of the hardship she has endured in her short life.

One gram of heroin, which satisfied her for two days, cost almost $20, she says. That's more than the average monthly income of rural residents in Yunnan. So, she says, she started skipping class to roam the streets with a gang of a dozen other kids, stealing jewelry or breaking into stores.

Several months ago, the police arrested Li Mei, along with some of her friends, when they were buying heroin at a train station in Kunming.

Ms. Li was sent to this drug detox center run by the Yunnan police, where she went through a week of withdrawal. She now takes part in daily military training, health training and substitute primary school education. The center is effectively run as a prison for drug addicts, with locked metal doors and bars on all the windows.

Police officer Li Xiuning, who works at the center, says it's the largest of its kind in China, holding an average of 3,000 drug addicts at any time. It was founded in 1989, just when the drug trade began to explode in Yunnan Province. The vast majority of inmates here are under the age of 30, addicted to heroin and have very little education. Almost all have committed crimes, including murder.

Officer Li says she has noticed in the last few years, the addicts are younger and younger, some of them only 12-years-old. She adds that at least a third of the girls have turned to prostitution to fund their drug habit.

The addicts stay anywhere from six months to two years before they are released. Yet more than 80 percent of them fall back into their old habits soon after leaving the center, and half the inmates here have been in treatment before.

Li Jianhua, deputy director of the Yunnan Institute for Drug Abuse, points out that the cold-turkey withdrawal method used by almost all of China's drug detoxification centers does nothing to cure users of their addiction. Addicts need additional counseling to learn how to deal with a lifetime of cravings back out in the real world.

Dr. Li says that AIDS has made drug addiction even more deadly than before. He says 70 percent of all HIV positive residents in Yunnan Province are intravenous heroin users. And the number is growing quickly. Last year, more than 9,000 Yunnan residents were HIV positive, compared with just 8,000 the year before. But Dr. Li suspects the real numbers are higher, with maybe as many as 62,000 people in Yunnan infected with AIDS or the HIV virus that causes it.

With many drug users engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners, Dr. Li says, China urgently needs to build drug education and prevention programs for its young people. He is working with the United Nations and other international groups on pilot programs to teach addicts about the hazards of AIDS.

But these efforts come too late for 15-year-old heroin addict Li Mei. Sitting on the side of a basketball court where other inmates are undergoing military training, Li Mei says she had never heard of AIDS when she started shooting up. She learned about it here at the detox center while taking a health class.

Most of the time, Li Mei says, she didn't share a needle with other users, because she knew sharing might make her catch some disease. But asked if she knows how people get AIDS, the 15-year-old bows her head in silence. After thinking for a while, she says she still doesn't know for sure.