Sun, Jul 08, 2007 - Page 3 News List

Feature: Justice ministry considering methadone bill

KICKING THE HABIT An experimental program shows that methadone, taken once a day, has helped drug addicts work like normal people, a justice ministry official said

By Rich Chang  /  STAFF REPORTER

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is considering making methadone treatment compulsory for heroin addicts to thelp them kick the habit.

Methadone is designed to treat narcotic withdrawal, reducing dependence on drugs such as heroin. When administered by trained physicians, it also lowers the risk of contracting diseases through injections.

Chronic heroin addicts may need to use methadone for much of their lives to deal with their addiction.

"Because the experimental methadone program in Tainan and other places is doing well, the ministry is considering promoting a law requiring heroin users to take the methadone program," MOJ Chief Councilor Chen Ming-tang (陳明堂) told the Taipei Times.

In a first for the nation, the Tainan District Prosecutors' Office last November launched an experimental methadone program to help heroin users kick the habit.

It worked with the Department of Health (DOH) to promote the "methadone substitution program."

Under the program, heroin addicts who turn themselves in are granted deferred prosecution and can begin a one-year methadone treatment immediately.

Once started, the treatment is compulsory.

Heroin users are obliged to contribute NT$50,000 (US$1,500) to a special fund to help finance the cost of treatment.

After one year, they can decide whether they want to continue a lifetime methadone program at their own expense.

The Tainan District Prosecutors' Office said that methadone is taken once a day and costs about NT$70, which is low compared with supporting a heroin habit that can run up to NT$10,000 a day.

Moreover, methadone's cost could drop to a low NT$20 once Taiwan starts producing the drug.

The methadone treatment program requires addicts to visit a designated hospital or police station to receive their daily dose, the office said.

Chen said that the recidivism for using heroin was more than 90 percent, but the methadone substitution program had been found to be effective internationally.

While the MOJ is still looking for supporting international reports on the methadone program, the DOH supports the program and believes it works, he said.

Under the current law, those arrested for using "first-class" drugs such as heroin and cocaine, or "second-class" drugs such as amphetamines and marijuana, must undergo narcotic treatment at drug abstention and treatment centers for a maximum of one month. Those who are seriously addicted and fail an exam after the one-month treatment must undergo a second treatment, lasting up to a maximum of one year.

The law stipulates that those who've received narcotic treatments one or two times and are arrested again for drug use will be charged under criminal law.

Chen said the ministry has voiced concerns that methadone might be stolen from hospitals easily if not controlled properly and that the budget needed to support a large number of addicts on the program could be big.

Aside from Tainan, the experimental methadone program has been adopted by other district prosecutors' offices in Pingtung, Yunlin, Miaoli and Taoyuan, he said, adding that the Shilin office is about to do the same.

"The effect of methadone can last 24 to 36 hours, allowing heroin addicts to take it once a day and work like normal people," said Tsai Ching-hsiang (蔡清祥), head prosecutor of the Shilin District Prosecutors' Office.

Shilin Prosecutor Lin Zai-pei (林在培), a senior prosecutor focusing on drug crimes, said he and a number of other prosecutors were drafting a methadone bill, which might be completed ahead of the ministry's proposed law.

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