For decades, Chamroon Pachandra was feeding a mysterious and ancient Siamese herbal mixture to those who wanted relief from the “Opium Devil,” and 30,000 ex-addicts swear to its amazing power.
One fateful consequence of the Vietnam era—suggested in movies like Who'll Stop The Rain and The Deer Hunter—was the meteoric rise in heroin addiction in the western world. Despite a technology that annexed the moon, no better cure than methadone was developed to alleviate the drastic effects of heroin addiction. And methadone merely maintains addiction with government juice and controls.
Hope for Rehabilitation
But there was reason for optimism. When we were in the Far East on assignment, we heard about a unique drug detoxification and rehabilitation program outside Bangkok which treated opium, heroin, and other forms of hard-drug addiction.
We were photographing and researching the United Nations' attempt to substitute high-cash crops for the lucrative opium poppy grown by the Meo, Akhu, Karen, and other nomadic hill tribes in northern Thailand. Our guide was Khun Chitr Posayananda, a seventy-turee-year-old man of spry wit and vigor. We arrived at his villa, secluded in the midst of the terrible congestion of Bangkok, a retreat or orchids and cool arbors. For 30 years, Khun Chitr was Deputy Head of Excise, responsible for controlling the legal production of opium and taxing the opium dens. Even earlier, he escorted the opium caravans from the Shan States in Burma.
Perhaps no one in Asia knew as much about drugs as Khun Chitr—his American heroes are Anslinger and Herbert Hoover, and his three sons are leading members of the narcotics police force in Bangkok. Also meeting us at Khun Chitr's was Dr. Robert Dupont, formerly President Gerald Ford's advisor on drugs. Dressed in plaid golfing slacks and sneakers, a towering example of American downhome idealism, Dupont presented a sharp contrast to the wizened worldliness of Khun Chitr.
The drug detoxification center was a Buddhist monastery located 50 kilometers west of Bangkok—a city that had over a quarter of a million addicts. Thamkrabok Buddhist Abode claimed an astonishing cure ratio of 70 percent. It treated 30,000 addicts over the course of 21 years, at an average cost of $12.00 an addict per day. Abbot Archarn Chamroon Panchandra was awarded the Magsaysay Award for Public Service (comparable to a Nobel Prize in Asia) for his selfless devotion to the problem of addiction. The monastery was situated in a grove of fragrant eucalyptus trees. We entered a narrow room where three monks in dark sunglasses and saffron robes were administering an oath to a group of addicts who swore that if they returned to drugs after their treatment, they would surely die. One man, ironically a policeman, had brought his son and said that 30 percent of the students in the private school his son attended in the south were addicted to heroin cigarettes.
Archarn Chamroon Panchandra, a large open-faced man with a great imperturbability and considerable presence and power, came out to greet us and lead us into a huge "cold turkey" hall crowded with over 200 sweating, suffering addicts reclining on towels in the intense heat. The scene was enormously moving: all that desperation for survival, the last chance eyes, a gasping vibration in the room like beached fish washed on the shore. The monk walked among them comforting, encouraging, exhorting, fondling, radiating strength, support, and love.
Then he led us to a fountain where monks were giving small paper cups of brown muddy liquid to a group of new patients. This was the herbal mixture, a secret remedy that the Abbot had learned from his aunt. The herb was taken with vast amounts of water. Then the patients would jam their fingers down their throats to induce vomiting. While they retched, they were encouraged by former addicts who had already completed the 10-day cycle of throwing up. The former addicts were singing support, playing tambourines and drums, and the more the patients vomited, the more intense the clapping and singing became.
Spreading the Cure
We all had a parley later: Khun Chitr, Dr. Dupont, several Thai medical doctors and drug workers, and monks—all seated barefoot on the floor of the Abbot's office. Dupont asked about the secret herb and the Abbot said it was grown in what was at the time communist territory and that it was used to make charcoal by the insurgents. The Abbot then asked Dupont for American assistance. Dupont was skeptical about the Abbot's statistics and worried about the one out of every 300 who dies during the vomit purge.
We asked the Abbot whether he could come to America to establish a similar program. Archarn Chamroon replied that he was under a vow never to travel by car, boat or plane all his life, but he extended an open invitation to American addicts to take his cure.