FEATURE: Clean and Serene - The Missing Stage of Drug Rehab in Taiwan

FEATURE: Clean and Serene - The Missing Stage of Drug Rehab in Taiwan
REUTERS/Staff/File Photo

What you need to know

As Taiwan’s government tries to tackle a growing drug problem, former addicts are trying to build a bridge back to society.

Jason Chen sits at a table in an airy room, using a toothbrush to give the final touch-ups to bars of lavender soap. He is in a building in the outskirts of Miaoli, western Taiwan. The early winter air is crisp; a light breeze sweeps down from the north and through the open windows into what was once a tea factory. Here, in the quiet foothills, looking out to the plains below, there is a palpable sense of tranquility.

There is serenity in Chen’s eyes, too. At 31-years-old, he is recovering from two decades of drug abuse; he started using heroin when he was 11 after being offered his first hit from a friend of his brother’s in Taichung. Since then, he has spent his time either on drugs or in prison. But he has been out, and clean, for nearly two years.

Chen (not his real name) says this place – a Christian-run drug rehabilitation center cum lavender and tea-tree farm and beauty product shop named Grace2me – allows him to “clear his mind.”

He likes the environment, the people and the opportunity to quietly work. Before arriving at Grace2me, he never believed he could really quit for good. After being released from a long stretch in prison, where he was clean for several years, he immediately returned to his old act and was quickly back on drugs. He says of his group of friends that initially started taking drugs together in Taichung, three are in prison – one is facing a likely 30-year sentence and another is dead after being shot in a gunfight with police. Luckily, his sister successfully encouraged him to once again try rehab. He believes being away from his “past” is helping.

For Chen, who has been at Grace2me for six months, it is still early days. This time, so far, it is working, but in Taiwan, the rate of rehabilitated drug users who relapse after their release from jail is estimated to be 70 percent. Grace2me has helped hundreds of addicts over the past 13 years, usually housing them for several months at a time, but only two in 10 patients stay clean, staff say.

The center is run by Liu Chih-hung (劉志宏), a recovered amphetamine addict of 10 years, who says he “found God” after entering a religious facility following several stays in psychiatric and medical hospitals. He says his earlier institutional treatment included being heavily doped on pharmaceutical medication and sessions of electric-shock therapy.

Liu, 49, started smoking amphetamine (known as meth) at 17. He came from the same conservative Hakka community where his center is now located. He says his decade of drug use “tore his family apart.” His mother, too, was committed to psychiatric care and his father, who now lives with him at the center, attempted suicide. At the height of his addiction, he was dealing to fund his own daily habit, which cost about NT$10,000 (more than US$300).

To this day, his legs are scarred from the numerous motorcycle accidents, which he says, were so frequent because of his dependency on sleeping pills, which he took to try to numb his drug-riddled mind after days of taking amphetamine.

“I would lose my mind,” he says of the affect the combination of uppers and downers had on him.

Liu, who has been working with addicts for more than 10 years, believes Taiwan’s drug problem is worsening; more people are using than ever before and they are starting at a younger age.

Credit: TNL
Jason Chen at Grace2me.

Combating rising use

Liu’s assertion is backed up by the latest official statistics and government rhetoric.

Speaking in Taipei this week, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) called for “an all-out effort” to arrest drug dealers and help juvenile addicts, state-run CNA reports. Tsai, who said Taiwan’s youth were increasingly using drugs such as ketamine, Xanax and Valium.

"Combating drugs is a major element in the restoration of social order," she said.

In a possible signal towards reform, Tsai also said that drug addicts who were not involved in drug trafficking should be treated for addiction as “patients and victims of the drug trade,” not as criminals, China Times reports. She has tasked the Executive Yuan with developing concrete plans for drug rehabilitation programs.

Justice Minister Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) was quoted as saying the drug problem among Taiwan’s young had reached "concerning" levels. The government would crackdown on dealers, develop a network to help addicts quit, and establish a new drug-fighting database as part of a package of measures to combat drug abuse, Chiu said.

During her inauguration speech in May, Tsai noted “anti-drug efforts” as one of the societal issues the new government planned to act on. There have been signs of a concentrated effort across the executive branches of government and law enforcement. In the first half of the year, officials reported a 20 percent increase in the cases related to illegal drugs and a 21 percent increase in the number of people prosecuted for drug offenses.

In July, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) announced a record number of drug arrests had been made in a three-day nationwide “sweep” – more than 500 alleged dealers and 1,800 users were arrested, and 1.5 tons of illegal substances were seized. The bust involved National Police Agency, the MOJ’s Investigation Bureau, the Coast Guard Administration, Military Police Command, the Customs Administration and district prosecutors nationwide.

The top-three drug types reported by Taiwan’s medical institutions in 2014 were heroin, at 63 percent, followed by amphetamine (meth) 27 percent and ketamine 9 percent, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s 2015 annual report. The country’s most-used drugs have been largely unchanged in recent years, except for ketamine which has been steadily increasing. Although, of the total number of drugs cases reported by officials in the first half of 2016, there was a 23 percent increase in the number of related to “second class” drugs, which includes marijuana and amphetamines, compared to the same period in 2015.

While the crackdown appears to be bearing fruit for law enforcement, there has long been concern that Taiwan’s approach to drug policy focuses on punishment rather than treatment. According to government statistics, nearly half of Taiwan’s 60,000 prison inmates are in jail for drug offenses. With 270 prisoners per 100,000 people, Taiwan has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in Asia, following Turkmenistan, Thailand, Maldives and Iran.

M. Bob Kao was a public interest lawyer in California and has taught American law in Taiwan and China. He says that many legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) understand that rehabilitation and treatment are central to effectively addressing the problem of drug use. However, when judicial reform advocate and then-DPP legislator Wellington Koo (顧立雄) suggested changes to the drug laws in July, he was met with strong opposition.

“He was lambasted by a lot of people who didn't understand him. Because they think prison solves the problem for them as non-drug users, and they could care less about the addicts,” Kao says. “What they don't realize is that if the root of the problem is not addressed, we as a society will all be paying for it for the rest of their lives.”

Kao adds that now Koo is no longer in the Legislative Yuan – he has since taken an executive position – and given that any decriminalization will bring out opponents, “who will use junk science to support their position,” he does not foresee the DPP moving forward with drug reform in the near future.

Liu Chih-hung at Grace2me.

Religion and the second stage of rehabilitation

For Liu and the people he helps, religion – namely the Christian faith – is a crucial aspect of the process of staying clean. He believes that he was like most of the addicts he has met: he did want to quit, in fact, he was desperate to. Ostracized from family and under pressure from his drug-taking friends to continue to deal and use, Liu said he saw “no way out.”

He sees his own recovery as a genuine “miracle.” After being introduced to Christian social workers while in a psychiatric facility, it took him about a year to get clean. He undertook a further six years of religious training and eventually started to help other addicts.

Today, he is matter-of-fact, rather than evangelical, about the relationship between religion and staying off drugs. Asked what he thinks would have happened if he did not “find God,” Liu says the answer is simple: “In prison or dead.” He points to the fact so many addicts return to drugs despite getting clean in prison – Taiwan’s recidivism rate for drug crimes is estimated at above 80 percent – and that the level of repeat offending is lower among those who find religion.

“People who are saved by religion have a better chance [of staying clean],” he says. “They are more stable.”

However, he also believes the key gap in treatment across Taiwan, and in many other countries, lies in the “second stage” of rehab – that is the stage after addicts first get clean in a medical facility, but before they are able to rejoin their families and friends and live “normal” lives.

At Grace2me, beyond daily school and regular Bible classes, patients like Chen are encouraged to focus on their work responsibilities in the lavender and tea-tree farm and small production and packaging facilities. Liu says that many rehabilitation centers or halfway houses are located in typical apartment blocks, which are not the most conducive environment for recovery. His center tries to focus on providing a sanctuary where recovering addicts can get a “fresh start,” in particular, he says, they can be away from their old groups of friends, temptations and people that may lead them back to drugs.

The center, at its peak, housed about 30 patients at a time. At the time, the business side included running three small local eateries. But the cost – operational expenses were mostly covered by donations from other Christian groups – and stress has seen Liu eventually pare back the operations.

Today, Grace2me is helping a handful of patients and some, like Chen, stay for much longer than others.

Liu is upbeat about the prospects of selling lavender and tea-tree products in Taiwan. After researching the plants for nearly ten years, the enterprise is finally bringing in much-needed cash and he anticipates that the center will be financially self-sustainable within the next two to three years. He plans to expand also; driving out of the center into the surrounding suburbs, he points to several unused fields that he has designs on. He believes the locally-made, environmentally-friendly soaps and oils should be marketable to high-end shops and hotels across the island-nation.

Chen, however, is still reluctant to talk about the future. He does not yet have plans. He is just trying to get his mind back to a “normal place” and find peace.

If he had plans for the future, one of the staff notes, he would not be here.

Editor: Olivia Yang

Special acknowledgment: TNL staff writer Mo Tz-pin for the translating assistance.