Illicit drug use in some Muslim countries carries a stigma that keeps many from getting the treatment they need. According to NYTimes.com, every Monday and Thursday morning, a man rides the bus for an hour and a half from his home in Kuala Lumpur to the Ah-Rahman mosque. After reciting his prayers, the man climbs the stairs to the mosque’s mezzanine level, where he gives a urine sample and consults with a doctor. A pharmacist then gives him a plastic cup with methadone, a drug used to maintain or ween people off heroin. This man wishes to remain anonymous to avoid the stigma of drug addiction. He injected heroin for seven years before coming to the mosque for methadone treatment. He said, “It makes me no longer take heroin on the street. It makes me able to work.”
Some Muslim religious scholars believe drugs prevent Muslims from carrying out their religious duties, and therefore they are forbidden under Islam. Malaysia enforces strict rules against drugs, including the death penalty for drug trafficking. Penalties for heroin possession range from a fine, up to life imprisonment and whipping, depending on the amount of the drug.
At Ah-Rahman mosque, doctors from University of Malaysia have convinced religious authorities to allow what the World Health Organization claims is the world’s first methadone program operating out of a mosque. Doctors hope to expand the program to two more mosques in coming months. Malaysia has an estimated 170,000 intravenous drug users, with heroin being the most commonly used drug.
While some countries have been using methadone to treat heroin addiction for years, Malaysia introduced a nationwide, government-financed program in 2005, where previously the only methadone available was at the client’s own expense. The alarming spread of HIV among intravenous drug users in Malaysia prompted the government to begin this methadone program, along with a needle exchange. Before the introduction of methadone, heroin addicts were sent to a two-year, government run rehabilitation facility, where they would go “cold turkey.” Doctors noted a high rate of relapse.
Although the availability of methadone programs has expanded since 2005, a shortage of adequate facilities still left many untreated. When doctors first approached mosques and government facilities about running these programs from the religious centers, they faced strong opposition. Authorities feared methadone was forbidden by Islam, but supporters of the program argued that methadone was not forbidden by Islam because it is a medication that does not give patients a euphoric feeling. Finally, officials agreed to the pilot program.
The world’s first methadone clinic run from a mosque, which began in 2010, has 50 patients, ranging from ages 18-50. When they first enter the program, patients must take methadone under the watchful eye of pharmacists. After several months and at least two consecutive clean urine tests, some patients are allowed to take up to three doses home.
Although this is the first program run out of a mosque, Islamic authorities have been involved in the fight against addiction in other countries, where some Islamic organizations run rehabilitation centers. The authorities approved this program in the mosque because they consider methadone a medicine, used to treat drug addiction. The treasurer of the mosque, Nizam Yussof, agreed to host the program because it will improve lives. Not everyone agrees. Some of the mosque’s worshippers do not approve of drug addicts waiting around the mosque. The doctors of the clinic hope to work closely with the mosque to continue to remove the stigma from drug addiction.
Since the Malaysian authorities implemented the methadone and needle exchange programs, the rate of HIV infection has dropped significantly. At Ah-Rahman mosque, the Ministry of Health provides methadone doses for free, as well as paying two pharmacists to work at the clinic. Each patient also pays a small fee each week.
The program also includes “spiritual enhancement,” which is often a feature of drug addiction treatment programs, regardless of the patient’s religion. For the first eight weeks of the program, patients are required to perform their prayers before they see a doctor or receive their methadone. After that, reciting prayers is not compulsory, but it is encouraged. The program also encourages weekly religious talks and other things to help patients avoid relapse. The Department of Islamic Development was involved in designing this part of the program.
Read the full story here . Image courtesy of Rahman Roslan for the International Herald Tribune.