TURLOCK — Huan Gao has befriended prostitutes and been invited to dinner by heroin addicts, all in the name of research.
The California State University, Stanislaus, criminal justice professor will travel to her native China to continue studying use of heroin, the country's most trafficked illegal drug.
But Gao makes sure she never knows the names of her new acquaintances. A few have sold quantities of heroin large enough to merit the death penalty under Chinese law.
"I was shocked every day by all the tragedy," said Gao, 43.
Gao's research in the southwestern city of Kunming, known as a vacation spot for newly wealthy Chinese, focuses on women who use heroin.
During her trip last summer, she re-interviewed about two dozen of her original 90 research subjects from her first trip in 2005. Two had died, and several more were newly diagnosed as being AIDS virus-positive. Mothers who dealt drugs carried infants as protection against undercover officers who might otherwise arrest them.
Gao said the economic reforms of the late 1970s and 1980s led to more women using heroin. Gao found cigarettes — not other drugs — were a typical gateway to heroin use.
Gao gained access to the women by cultivating informants, whom she paid a few U.S. dollars each time they connected her with a new person to interview.
She turns on her digital recorder for the interviews but makes sure to store the information where only she can find it.
During her second trip to the city, Gao said the people she re-interviewed took her as a friend.
"Even their relatives didn't care about them. The only people they can associate with are drug users," she said. "They are wives, mothers, daughters and sisters as other women in the society. They just lost control of their drug use."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.