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North Korea’s New Addiction: What is Amidon?

The hermit kingdom of North Korea has already been struggling to address an epidemic of crystal meth addiction, but many residents are now starting to use the painkiller methadone, which is commonly known in North Korea as Amidon.

A report on the website DailyNK claims that some North Koreans are getting so hooked on the drug that they are selling their personal belongings for a fix. Although details of where the drugs are being manufactured are spotty, North Korean residents have indicated that Amidon selling is common in Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, and Chongjin, a trading hub near the Chinese and Russian borders.

“The number of female users is also on the rise,” said a source to the site. “They use it to relieve fatigue from working in the markets and undergoing forced labor. It’s also secretly given as a gift on holidays, like the Lunar New Year.” Because actual medicine is scarce in North Korea, many people in the country use drugs like Amidon or crystal meth as a way of treating health problems.

History of Amidon
The name Amidon originated in 1942, after scientists determined through animal experiments that methadone was both an analgesic and a spasmolytic, and handed it over to the military for further testing under that code name. It was also used by the German military in World War II as a drug for its wounded and dying soldiers, but was traded under the name Amidone. The drug is derived from the opium poppy, which North Korea has traded for decades. The country’s recreational drug trade was a government-run industry at one point; during the ‘90s, former leader Kim Jong Il tried to make poppies a national source of income. There is no difference in the chemical makeup between drugs marketed as Amidon or methadone.

Although specific numbers related to Amidon addiction in North Korea have not been released by the notoriously secretive country, experts on the hermit kingdom estimate they are similar to that of the population addicted to crystal meth. A study published in the journal North Korea Review estimated “that at least 40% to 50% [of residents] are severely addicted to [crystal meth].”

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2012 that Amidon is responsible for roughly 5,000 deaths in the US every year, more than that of heroin or cocaine fatalities. And while methadone only compromises two percent of painkiller prescriptions in the US, it’s responsible for more than 30 percent of prescription painkiller overdose deaths. As of 2009, around 2.3 million Americans suffered from addiction to opioids such as methadone.

Methadone Treatment
Although methadone is an opioid medication, it’s frequently used as part of treatment methods for those with opioid addictions not involving methadone. Some medical experts feel this is paradoxical and can actually create a methadone addiction, but the drug has been used successfully for over 45 years as part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Individualized doses of methadone in this supervised format eliminate opioid withdrawals and cravings while also not making the patient feel high. However, MAT is an ongoing recovery process that can take months, or even years.

But for those with a methadone addiction, the treatment process is similar to the medication-assisted approach used for heroin addiction. Buprenorphine was approved by the FDA in 2002 for treatment of methadone and other opioid addictions. Suboxone is also administered to methadone addicts as a means of reducing withdrawals and cravings in order to function in society. It’s administered in residential treatment and outpatient therapy, depending on the severity of the addiction, with the goal of reducing dosage gradually.