A drug addict who left rehab but returned intoxicated by methamphetamine -- regionally known as philopon after the brand-name of a synthetic stimulant -- is given medical treatment.
When the Health and Welfare Ministry said last month it will submit an amendment to the nation’s drug control law that would force drug addicts given suspended sentences into treatment, it marked a fresh break from the practice of locking up drug offenders. But what treatment are addicts receiving in Korea, and how do they live?
Bugok National Hospital opened in 1988 as a psychiatric hospital and has a special wing where alcoholics, the mentally ill and drug addicts are treated. In December 1997, with drug addiction on the rise, the hospital opened a drug rehabilitation center.
Some 19 men and seven women are now receiving treatment -- not a lot, but between April and June, when drug addicts are encouraged to turn themselves in for treatment, the number doubles. Patients range from those in their 20s to those in their 50s. The relationships the addicts form with one another in the hospital are an important part of treatment. People who have entered rehab of their own accord have pledged to break out of their addiction, and they can keep others looking to make a quick exit in check.
There are two basic routes into rehab. There are those who want to, and those who are ordered to. The latter group must undergo two months’ mandatory treatment, but those who enter voluntarily are free to leave whenever they want. For patients, simply being in the hospital is therapy, because they can put physical space between them and the drugs and give themselves the chance to get their heads clear. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, for about an hour and half, patients receive lecture-style rehab education, and programs like karaoke, soccer, badminton and yoga help in the recovery process. But these programs are there simply to help patients remain in therapy; the core of the therapy is keeping patients away from drugs. There are many cases of drug abusers becoming dependent on drug substitutes, like tobacco, antidepressants and sleeping medication.
Hospital rules are strict. Phone calls are allowed only on Tuesday and Friday evening, to separate patients from friends and colleagues who still use drugs. Because they can be used as weapons, there are no mirrors in the bedrooms or bathrooms, and patients use only spoons to eat. Internet access is also restricted, with only patients who have been in treatment for a month allowed to check their e-mail, and even then only once a week. Drug deals are after all possible online as well.
Lee Gyeong-shin, 35, has been in therapy for six months. The son of a doctor, Lee immigrated to Paraguay to set up a factory producing buttons and zippers for jeans, making W6 million (US$6,000) a month. “I couldn’t relieve the stress I felt through alcohol or cigarettes, so I did it through cocaine. South America is a complete drug paradise," he says. "It’s so easy to get drugs, you can’t compare it to Korea. At first, it helped me work, but later, it got almost to the point that I couldn’t function socially."
Ultimately, he came back to Korea to enter rehab, on the advice of his father. While in treatment, his wife in Paraguay left him for his driver. On hearing the news, he felt like going back to drugs. “I’m going to get my life back after quitting this stuff. It’s a fact that I disappointed my family a lot because of drugs," he admits. But it was because of my wife that I came back to Korea for treatment, so how could she do this to me? I have a 5-year-old child. I have to give up drugs for him.”