The southwestern province of Guizhou, China is spearheading a new approach in its battle against the spread of narcotics. Sanguinely termed the “Sunshine Project,” this initiative treats drug addicts not as criminals but as victims that need to be rehabilitated and accepted into society.
The Sunshine Project represents a continental shift in China’s anti-drug policy. In the past, drug users were handed prison sentences or sent to rehabilitation centers. Recognizing the shortsightedness of these measures, as evidenced by high rates of relapse, the Chinese government passed a national anti-drug law in 2008 that allows users to avoid imprisonment by voluntarily seeking help from authorities or the health care system.
Most of the drugs that infiltrate China’s underbelly are grown and manufactured in the Golden Triangle, scattered intermittently throughout northern Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. From here, the narcotics are smuggled into provinces like Guizhou and shipped to other parts of the world from Hong Kong. Guizhou is a hotbed not just for smugglers, dealers and users, but also for diseases transmitted through blood, such as HIV and AIDS.
China’s traditional approach to anti-drug enforcement harkens back to the nineteenth century when the English smuggled crate-loads of opium into the country. The Chinese government regarded opium as a social evil and clamped down severely on dealers and smugglers. These gung-ho methods have proven futile: they clean up the streets for a season but ultimately fail to rehabilitate drug users in the long term.
The biggest obstacle for recovering addicts is not a lack of determination on their part but the severity of social stigma they must overcome. If drug addicts do not feel accepted by their communities, what incentive do they have to persevere? As the China Daily reports: “Because of their difficulties in finding jobs and integrating into society, rehabilitated persons usually return to drug addiction, forming a vicious circle of compulsory detoxification and relapse.”
The Sunshine Project is built on the principle that addicts must first feel accepted before they become productive citizens. The Project encourages businesses to employ recovering addicts to make them feel valued. The Economist reports that 100 enterprises in Guizhou have already jumped on board in exchange for subsidies and other forms of governmental support. One employer, Ye Kai, acknowledges that recovering addicts take longer to train, but the benefits provided by the government keep his business thriving.
To wean addicts from their dependency on drugs, the Sunshine Project provides them (sometimes at work) with a daily dose of methadone. Methadone simulates pleasurable feelings produced by heroin without its addictive and incapacitating effects. In this way, recovering addicts can work while undergoing rehabilitation. The project also provides counseling services.
Some criticize the Sunshine Project for investing too much money on drug addicts — approximately 130 million yuan ($21 million) to date. The Guizhou police, however, consider the project a necessary and promising investment. Since it started last year, police have reported lower rates of drug-related crimes and HIV transmission among drug users. Most impressively, fewer recovering addicts in the program experience relapse. The minister for public security, Meng Jianzhu, publicly praised the Sunshine Project as a model for the rest of the country.
Drug addicts are some of the hardest people to reintegrate into society because their patterns of behavior and thinking are considered anti-social. They are substance dependent, prone to diseases and criminal behavior and are unemployable. The Sunshine Project is a success because it prescribes a social solution to a social problem: rather than shun addicts, it encourages society to accept them for who they will become in the long term and not who they are in the present. The project unmistakably resonates with the ethos of unconditional love. In the words of writer and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton, “A thing must be loved before it is lovable.”