Thirty-four year old Anh believes she's too healthy for rehab.
“See? I'm very healthy,” she said, flapping her arms like chicken wings to demonstrate her strength.
Anh is one of many homeless drug users who were rounded up in Ho Chi Minh City and taken to Nhi Xuan, one of two transitional facilities the authorities set up on the outskirts of the city.
The facility is equipped with a district-level courtroom where a judge reviews the medical and police determine whether to send them to compulsory rehab centers or community-based treatment.
Experts say, however, that a lack of cooperation from the users has made it hard to rehabilitate and find them employment.
The two week law enforcement sweep began on December 5. Since then, HCMC's police and militiamen have sent 1,115 homeless drug users to the transitional centers.
The city’s 12 full-time rehab centers currently offer treatment and vocational training to about 10,000 others, according to the city Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.
The meth wrench
Tran Trung Dung, director of the city’s social affairs department, says the city has seen a rise in the number of methamphetamine users in the past several years, throwing a wrench into the rehabilitation regimen.
Between 40-50 percent of homeless drug users who were recently admitted to the centers are addicted to methamphetamine, which can cause serious mental problems, he said.
“We are responsible for protecting their bodies. They can damage themselves [under the influence], but we aren't allowed to take sufficient measures to protect ourselves,” he said at a conference held last week in HCMC by the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee.
Mealtime at the Nhi Xuan voluntary rehabilitation facility in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Minh Hung
A methamphetamine addict recently yanked an electrical wire out of a wall and attempted to use it to commit suicide at a transitional center.
“Half of [our methamphetamine addicts] only become aware of themselves after two weeks of sobriety. They generally need two months to regain full self-awareness, unlike 15 days for other kinds of drug addicts,” Dung said.
He said it has been difficult for the transitional centers to determine each person's level of addiction in the 24 hours they have before they must forward an addict's paperwork to the district judge.
“Some addicts test negative for methamphetamine use in the first 24 hours after admittance, but later show symptoms of being users,” he said.
While compulsory rehabilitation involves multiple-challenges, voluntary rehabilitation hasn't yielded the expected results due to a lack of cooperation from users.
Tien, a 39-year-old drug user in HCMC, was recently admitted to the Nhi Xuan facility for the fifth time to begin a voluntary rehabilitation regimen.
He only did so after a great deal of pressure from his family.
He said he does not want to be rehabilitated or trained to work a dead-end job.
“I don’t know. I don’t care about it,” Tien said.
Nguyen Van Tinh, an official at Nhi Xuan, said most drug users don't want to be admitted to the facility for rehabilitation.
“Most of them are afraid of being kept for a long time at the centers or starting to work there, despite the fact that it gives them an opportunity to earn money,” he told Thanh Nien News.
“Drugs have seriously affected them, leaving them too lazy to work and get better. They just want to get high.”
The centers have found it difficult to get users into a healthy work life schedule.
Dung, the director of the social affairs department, said his agency has seen a total of about 8,000 rehabbed drug users since 2008.
Currently, only 3,534 of them are being monitored.
The rest have either died, left the city, been arrested or completed their required two-year monitoring period, he said.
While unofficial sources maintain that most drug users start using again after leaving the city's rehab centers, Dung maintained that the relapse rate is only 25 percent.
The city currently sets aside a total of VND1.8 billion (US$84,000) a year to offer low-interest loans to rehabbed drug users.
The loans are designed to help them open small businesses, like motorbike repair shops, or to buy motorbikes so they can work as caterers.
“The borrowers very rarely pay back the loans,” Dung said.
Nga, a sex worker in District 3, said it's difficult for people like her to avoid relapsing.
“It’s like part of the job," she said. "We can’t quit working as a sex workers, and most of us can't quit drugs either.”