Pubdate: Sun, 15 Aug 2004
Source: Sun News (Myrtle Beach, SC)
Copyright: 2004 Sun Publishing Co.
Author: Shashank Bengali, Washington Bureau
Note: apparent 150 word limit on LTEs
Bookmark: (Methadone)


GEJIU, China - At first, addicts couldn't believe it. The city opened
a clinic right on the main road, where it offered something called
methadone, a drink that supposedly eliminated the craving for heroin,
for less than $1.

"People weren't sure," said Zhang Liren, an addict for 10 years. They
thought it might be a trap.

But word spread that the drink worked. Now, every afternoon, more than
160 addicts stream into the tiny clinic for a shot of a bright green
liquid that tastes vaguely of lime.

Many say they've stopped using heroin, that the methadone calms them
and returns them to normal lives.

A synthetic drug used to treat addiction in Western countries for more
than 30 years, methadone is gradually being legalized in China as the
government tries to control the spread of AIDS from sharing dirty needles.

Eight methadone pilot programs have been launched this year in
southern China, the heart of the AIDS epidemic because of its
proximity to Southeast Asian drug hot spots. Each treats at most a few
hundred patients.

Anti-drug advocates hail the programs as perhaps the best example of
the central government's changing attitude toward drug abuse. After
decades of treating addicts as criminals, shipping them off to bleak
hospitals for years of hard labor or even publicly executing them,
officials in Beijing told local and provincial governments to make
"harm reduction" methods such as methadone and needle exchanges part
of their health policies.

Now, although the government's drug-fighting budget is still paltry by
Western standards and it may be several years before the programs are
in wide use, advocates say China has made a breakthrough.

"I believe this is an incredible step forward, from not accepting the
drug problem to accepting it and trying to fight it practically," said
Li Jianhua, the deputy director of a drug-abuse institute in the
southwestern province of Yunnan, site of one of the pilot programs.

"Now we are waiting for the policy to become a reality nationwide."
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