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Kunming Drug Rehab Program Serves as Model for China - 2002-02-21

China is battling a growing drug trade that is fueling crime and AIDS, especially in the southern province, Yunnan, along the border with drug-producing countries such as Burma and Laos. The government's standard response to the ever-increasing number of drug addicts is to put them in detention centers. But one innovative drug rehabilitation program in Yunnan's capital, Kunming, could prove to be a successful model for the rest of the country. VOA Correspondent Leta Hong Fincher just visited Yunnan Province, and brings us this final report in her series on the drug trade there.

Yang Ming sings about the nightmarish world he left behind at age 40, when he finally kicked his 10-year addiction to heroin. The song describes his shattered family life, the wife who divorced him, the child who no longer called him father, the loss of everything that mattered to him, all because of the white, powdered drug he shot into his veins every night.

Mr. Yang, his tanned face riddled with deep lines, now brims with enthusiasm when he talks about the last drug-free year-and-a-half.

He says that thanks to a new drug rehabilitation program in Yunnan's capital Kunming, he's been able to cure his addiction, and find a job installing solar energy panels. Mr. Yang says he is now contributing to society, and feels like a normal person again.

The program is the first of its kind in China, and is run by the American non-profit drug rehabilitation group, Daytop, together with Yunnan's Institute for Drug Abuse.

Li Jianhua, deputy director for the Yunnan Institute, says the idea is to treat drug addiction as an illness, rather than a crime - still a revolutionary concept in China. He says the Daytop program in Kunming builds a therapeutic community for addicts, giving them medical treatment, counseling groups to discuss issues such as family abuse, art classes to encourage expression, and a job training program to help them re-integrate into society once they've kicked their drug habit. Since the program started in 1997, it has grown to support an average of 80 patients.

Dr. Li says other provinces are beginning to study this program, and he hopes its model of rehabilitation will gradually spread throughout China. The country now resorts largely to compulsory detoxification centers, which he says fail to address the underlying causes of drug addiction.

Dr. Li says the program is launching China's first experiment using methadone - a synthetic drug taken orally - to help wean addicts off injected heroin. Methadone is widely used in other countries to treat drug addicts, but China has forbidden its use until now.

Walking through the Daytop treatment center and halfway house, Yang Maobin - who runs the center - points out the self-affirmation posters written by addicts that are plastered colorfully over the dormitory walls.

Mr. Yang says the center tries to create a supportive and free environment for the 80 or so addicts who volunteer for treatment here.

He describes the peer education program it is starting in collaboration with the French non-profit group Doctors Without Borders, which recruits former addicts to work as counselors in the community.

Mr. Yang says that after receiving some training at the center, starting in March, former addicts will counsel sex workers and migrants who are addicted to drugs. He says drug addicts are much more receptive to people who have shared their own experience with addiction, making them better able to absorb health messages such as AIDS prevention.

35-year-old Li Mingqiang is about to venture out for the first time as a peer educator for the Daytop center.

Mr. Li says he sold his house, his car, and spent his entire fortune of $110,000 on a 10-year heroin habit. During that time, police arrested him twice and sentenced him to a compulsory detoxification center in Kunming. He says the punitive methods used at the detox center were so painful that as soon as he was released, all he wanted was to get another heroin high.

In contrast, Mr. Li says the Daytop center was much more humane. The combination of methadone treatment with the caring community slowly allowed him to overcome his addiction. He left the center in 1999, but has maintained contact through training programs and halfway house activities. Mr. Li says he now sees his struggle with drugs as a valuable resource, to help teach other addicts about responsibility, honesty and love.