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UCLA

Fighting the Drug Wars

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By Ajay Singh

Published Jan 10, 2007 8:48 AM


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The brain on methamphetamines View hi-res.


Substance abuse experts from 22 nations visited UCLA to map out new approaches to treatment.

Drug addiction is fraught with social, economic and political challenges that transcend boundaries. The good news is that serious efforts are underway to assess, treat and rehabilitate addicts across nations and cultures, thanks to an innovative collaboration between UCLA and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

On Dec. 19, the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs (ISAP) at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior capped a three-week international substance abuse training program for professionals from nations as diverse as China, Brazil, Lebanon and Sweden. From January through June 2007, these professionals will begin training clinicians back home in one of the most comprehensive international training efforts to ever combat drug addiction.

With more than 300 researchers, clinicians and support staff, ISAP is one of the nation's three largest substance abuse research groups, especially noted for its expertise in the escalating problem of methamphetamine use. Earlier this year, the UNODC selected ISAP to identify and organize a global network of 19 resource centers called "Treatnet" and to develop training manuals aimed at screening, treating and rehabilitating addicts as well as preventing HIV/AIDS.

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ISAP Associate Director Richard Rawson

"The UNODC is a police-oriented group and this is the first time they've ever funded anything to do with (drug) treatment," said ISAP Associate Director Richard Rawson. "Getting new knowledge into the treatment system is a significant addition to their portfolio."

ISAP's training program was conducted simultaneously in Los Angeles, Britain and Australia, bringing together 29 professionals from 22 nations. Sixteen of them trained in Los Angeles. Many are psychologists and physicians who, as in the United States, are trained to do general counseling, support and social service activities, said Rawson.

"But not many had the knowledge about specialty substance abuse, which they got here," Rawson said, referring to neurobiological research that ISAP has conducted since it was founded in 1999 to combine the expertise and resources of several organizations in Southern California. "When people get addicted to drugs, their brain changes," he explained. "It makes sense to scientists but if you communicate it properly it also makes sense to trainers and to patients and their families."

Among those impressed by ISAP's neurobiological research was Min Zhao, director of the Shanghai Drug Abuse Treatment Center, who attended the training program in L.A. "I knew some of this only from books and medical literature — not so deeply," she said, adding: "I'm ready to go back to China and train others."

Sarah Wamunyu, a social worker from a psychiatric hospital in Nairobi, said she couldn't wait to return to her native Kenya and put into use the cognitive behavioral therapy she had learned. "I used to do the traditional approach with patients — 'if you continue to use drugs, you have to face the consequences,'" she said. "Now I've learned to be more understanding and empathetic."

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