Cao Tan Thanh went into hiding as soon as the Ho Chi Minh City authorities got the green light to round up drug addicts and send them to temporary rehab facilities.
“I'd be stuck there [at the center] for a long time. Moreover, I cannot find work with the kind of job training skills they offer,” said the 39-year-old drug user.
“After rehabilitation, local police would let any employer know that I was a drug user after reviewing my job application. There is no place willing to recruit [rehabilitated] drug users,” said Thanh, who has been a drug user for 14 years despite having spent several stints in rehab.
Following a surge in drug crime, the National Assembly -- Vietnam's legislature -- has begun allowing cities and provinces nationwide to detain homeless drug users in transitional centers, while waiting for district courts to rule on whether or not they should be remanded to mandatory, long-term rehab programs (12-24 months).
Relevant agencies said they are determined to enforce the new regulations, despite facing multiple challenges at work.
According to the city’s vice mayor, Hua Ngoc Thuan, more and more drug addicts from other localities are migrating to HCMC.
Although there are no official statistics, authorities estimate that as much as 70 percent of injection drug users are homeless.
Elusive drug users
With an increasing number of homeless drug users, the city has faced many difficulties in admitting them to rehab centers as most are doing their best to avoid being caught.
Thuan said that shortly after they launched the campaign, drug users have disappeared from parks, overpasses, bridges and bus stops.
“Some have been detained for administrative procedures [for compulsory rehabilitation]. Others are hiding to avoid being detained under the new regulations,” he told Thanh Nien News.
Phan Le Minh, an HIV-positive drug user, said he has been trying to keep his drug use on the down low to avoid being sent to the rehab centers.
“I quit school in the 4th grade and began using drugs two or three years afterward. I spend up to VND6 million (US$282) on drugs a month,” he said.
“I want to quit using drugs, but I don’t want to do so at the center because of the lengthy process. I want to get clean while living in the community so I can work,” said the 32-year-old man who has been using drugs for almost 20 years.
Le Son, who participates in a peer support group, said he distributes free syringes and condoms to drug users at “black spots”--a term for places where drug users congregate.
“They have found new places to shoot up away from the raid. They do not want to be admitted to compulsory rehabilitation centers because they view it as detention.”
“They don’t want to be sent there against their will. They do not think about the possible benefits of the treatment,” Son said.
In addition to being challenged by the elusiveness of drug users, the city’s relevant agencies have also encountered many inadequacies with infrastructure and personnel.
Which seems hardly surprising. More than 1,200 homeless drug addicts were sent to two transitional centers, Binh Trieu and Nhi Xuan.
Bui Thanh Tuan, director of the Nhi Xuan Employment and Vocational Training Center in the city’s outlying Hoc Mon District, said they recently admitted around 550 drug users, including 100 females.
The center’s staff of 200 people, including 30 doctors, is currently treating a total of 850 drug users.
“We have sufficient personnel but it is a very difficult job to detoxify a drug user and provide him or her with psychological therapy.”
“Sometimes, they turn their beds over and destroy everything. Some have even yanked electrical wires out of the wall and attempted to electrocute themselves,” he said.
Dr. Nguyen Huu Can of the Employment and Vocational Training Center No. 2 – a drug rehab center run by the HCMC Youth Volunteer Force in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, said they will have to upgrade their facility and take in more drug users from the transitional centers.
“We will have to repair our worn down facilities and either recruit more doctors and medical workers or train up our staff,” he said.
Despite all the challenges, the municipal authorities have followed through on their pledges to implement compulsory rehabilitation to address crime through rehabilitation and vocational training.
“We don’t allow homeless drug users to use drugs in public places because they threaten public safety and health. We have to take strong and effective measures to protect their human rights,” said Vo Van Thuong, deputy chief of the city’s Communist Party Unit.
According to Thuong, law enforcement agencies are not allowed to handcuff drug users like normal criminals.
Le Tan Hung, chief of the city’s Youth Volunteer Force, said his agency oversees four drug rehab centers in Dak Nong, Lam Dong, Binh Duong and HCMC that can offer treatment for up to 4,000 drug users in total.
“Most drug users are inconsiderate people who ignored the dangerous impacts of drug use. These centers offer an environment for them to rehabilitate, study and work to make money.”
Hung said a drug user can work part time to make VND500,000-700,000 a month.
“We have many productive activities, like planting vegetables and raising chickens and pigs,” he said.
Thuan, the city’s vice mayor, said drug users will receive vocational training and support from localities in finding a job to avoid relapsing.
“But fighting relapse requires strong will from the rehabilitated drug user, in addition to support from the community,” he said.