Did US Drug Study Violate Chinese Addicts' Rights?

By McCarton Ackerman 08/03/12

Addicts participating in the heroin study may have been held against their will in Beijing rehabs.

Chinese treatment centers have a history of
human rights abuses.
Photo via

A medical study on heroin users, partially funded by the US government, was conducted at Chinese detention centers that have been accused of severe human rights violations. The study, published in the April 13 issue of Science, tested an experimental treatment called "memory retrieval-extinction" on 66 former heroin users confined at two facilities in Beijing. Addicts in both facilities are "detained without due process" and were being "held in a closed institution where monitoring of human rights abuses is not allowed," says Joseph Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. It's unclear whether the subjects themselves were voluntary patients, or were being held against their will, he adds. Bioethicist Karen Maschke of the Hastings Center, a New York think tank, says that under American law, federally-funded research on inmates must be approved by a panel including at least one prisoner who volunteers to serve. Eight of the scientists from Peking University involved in the research said they "saw no indication of the abuses," while the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which provided financial support in the form of salaries to two co-authors, says its scientists were only "involved in the data analyses and the preparation of the manuscript."

China's drug treatment centers have a long history of alleged human rights violations. A 2010 New York Times report said drug users are confined to the facilities by police without trials or the hope of appeal, while enduring "an unremitting gantlet of physical abuse and forced labor without any drug treatment." A 2010 article in China Daily said drug users at Ankang Hospital are typically confined involuntarily for two years and engage in therapies such as boxing and playing in sand, which have not been shown to be effective against addiction. An estimated 200,000 people are currently housed in compulsory drug detention centers in China.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.