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China makes addicts say 'no' at forced drug detox center

Friday, November 16, 2001

BEIJING -- The heroin trail snakes up from China's borders, into its towns and cities and through the veins of its addicts. But it stops at the Beijing Police Compulsory Drug Detoxification Center.

Here, behind brick walls emblazoned with slogans like "Love Life," the state makes inmates in striped blue and white pajamas say no to drugs.

Police took foreign reporters on a brief and controlled tour of the center Wednesday -- a sign that China is beginning to treat its worsening drug problem with increasing openness, rather than as an embarrassment best hidden.

China's communists shut down opium dens and declared the nation drug-free after they seized power in 1949. But today, all that has changed. Heroin, marijuana, amphetamines, ecstasy -- all are available and abused. Two decades of economic reforms have given people money to buy drugs and opened borders so traffickers can reach them.

China's response to the problem is draconian. Traffickers are often executed. Users are packed off to detox centers and labor camps: 67,000 of them in the first six months of this year, the government-run Xinhua News Agency says. Police need not consult courts: Just a urine test and an admittance of drug use is enough for them to send people away.

One 28-year-old inmate at the Beijing center, who came to the Chinese capital on vacation, said she was out dancing when police tested her. The test found traces of ecstasy. The woman, who did not give her name, says she took the drug in Guangzhou, a southern city where she works for an air conditioning firm.

"I hadn't taken any in Beijing, but it still showed up," she said. "They said: 'You have to go to rehabilitation."'

Inmates who can afford it must pay -- $845 for three months, more if they stay longer, said the camp's director, Lu Qiulin. Most inmates used heroin. Less than 10 percent stay off drugs after their release, Lu said.

In the past decade, the number of known drug addicts has risen from 70,000 to 860,000 last year, the Ministry of Public Security says. Experts say the actual number of regular users probably tops 4 million; most are under age 35.

Opium's history

Heroin and opium are most widely abused. One reason is their availability: China borders two of the world's largest opium poppy-growing countries, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

History makes drugs a hot-button issue. China still recalls bitterly how British traders, backed by gunboats from their government, forced opium onto the Chinese in the 19th century. The two countries fought two wars over the issue.

Today, young people in prosperous coastal cities like Shanghai are behind a steep rise in use of factory-made drugs like "ice," a powerful stimulant, and ecstasy -- which Chinese call "yaotouwan" or "head-shaking pills."


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