ST. PAUL (AP) -- The jungle battles have passed, but some former Hmong soldiers still are battling addiction to opium, a drug that was the only medicine they knew to relieve the pain of war wounds.
One old soldier who resettled in the Twin Cities said opium saved his life after Communist bullets tore through his leg -- then took it over for three decades.
"You don't know how hard it is," said one soldier who declined to give his name as he spoke through an interpreter. "When you don't get it, your whole body burns. You smoke two or three pipes, and it relaxes your whole body."
The man, nearly 60, finally beat the addiction a few years ago after a second round of treatment. He still takes part in follow-up counseling at Lao Family Community of Minnesota, a nonprofit agency in St. Paul.
Using opium as a folk medicine is a cultural practice of Southeast Asia that some immigrants continued after coming to the United States. Authorities said the drug showed up in Minnesota as the number of Asian refugees soared in the early 1990s.
The Twin Cities -- with a large population of Southeast Asians -- is one of the few metro areas where police routinely see the drug.
Since June, agents have seized 30 pounds of opium smuggled aboard flights bound to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Asia. Four St. Paul residents were arrested in the two large busts.
But authorities routinely intercept packages sent to St. Paul from Laos or Thailand containing a few ounces of concealed opium.
Nearly all of the estimated 3,500 opium addicts in the Twin Cities are Southeast Asian immigrants, treatment counselors said. Mostly older, they represent only about 5 percent of the Hmong population. Most immigrants shun the drug and addicts who have brought it to their new homeland, but counselors and clan leaders worry that children of the addicts may pick up the habit.
The recent arrests and concerns have brought Hmong community leaders together to discuss solutions, said Michael Yang of the Immigration Task Force of Minnesota. This fall, Lao Family will begin a survey of youths in four Southeast Asian immigrant groups -- Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian -- to assess substance abuse trends.
Authorities, however, say they have encountered little to support concerns that Hmong youths may be taking up opium. Those who use drugs are more likely to use street drugs such as crack cocaine or methamphetamine, investigators said.
When opium is sold on the street, it brings $33 a gram, said Lt. Dan Votel of the Ramsey County sheriff's narcotics unit. Dealers sell only within the Southeast Asian community and do not peddle opium openly, authorities said.
Leaders of Hmong clans and businesses have no tolerance for those who sell the drug, Yang said.
"That's not something we condone, that's not something we accept," Yang said. "That kind of activity paints a negative picture of Hmong community."
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