China Begins Legalizing Methadone as Part of Effort To Prevent HIV Transmission Among Injection Drug Users
The Chinese government has begun progressively legalizing methadone -- a synthetic narcotic drug often prescribed as a substitute for heroin in the treatment of addiction -- in an attempt to control injection drug use and HIV transmission, the Knight Ridder/St. Paul Pioneer Press reports. At least half of the estimated one million HIV cases in China are the result of shared needles among injection drug users, according to government statistics. Previously, the Chinese government sent illegal drug users to hospitals, forced them to do hard labor or publicly executed them. However, government officials have begun instructing local and provincial governments to implement needle-exchange and methadone programs as part of their health policies. So far, in Southern China -- the "heart" of the HIV/AIDS epidemic -- eight methadone programs have been launched, according to the Knight Ridder/Pioneer Press. Yunnan province -- which has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates and one of the highest injection drug use rates in the country -- plans to spend $48 million over seven years on HIV/AIDS research, education, care and awareness programs. The province -- where 90% of all HIV cases are attributable to shared needles -- plans to spend an additional $23 million on methadone and needle-exchange programs, according to Knight Ridder/Pioneer Press.
Zhang Changan, Yunnan's top AIDS official, said that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is at a "very critical moment" in the province. Zhang added, "We have to face it squarely ... and we have to win this battle by every means possible." Advocates in China say that the government's actions represent a "breakthrough," according to the Knight Ridder/Pioneer Press. "I believe this is an incredible step forward, from not accepting the drug problem to accepting it and trying to fight it practically," Li Jianhua, deputy director of a drug use institute in Yunnan, said. Drew Thompson, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "It's the most progressive law out there, and because it is the first one, it becomes the model for other provinces." However, police officer Yu Sheng recently wrote in the Beijing Review magazine that offering clean needles or drug "substitutes" is like "buying cigarettes for smokers." Yu added, "Drug users will eventually fear nothing, which will bring more difficulties in eliminating drug usage" (Knight Ridder/St. Paul Pioneer Press, 8/10).