The government’s draft drug law, which has come under fire for its potential to exacerbate abuses within Cambodia’s drug treatment centres, has been advanced to the National Assembly, an official at the Ministry of Interior said yesterday.
Khieu Samon, acting head of the anti-drug department at the Ministry of Interior, said the legislation had been sent to lawmakers earlier this month for approval. He touted its harsher penalties for drug offenders, but also its treatment provisions.
“This law is very important for drug-users, because they will return to society and live with their family; the drug-user can go to treatment at the rehabilitation centre as a volunteer,” Khieu Samon said.
Previous versions of the legislation, which was approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month, had been criticised harshly by rights groups who said it would invite the abuse of drug-users accused of being addicts and forced into treatment.
Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting “widespread beatings, whippings, and electric shock[s]” of people held in seven Cambodian drug-detention centres operated by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
David Harding, international training coordinator at Friends International, said yesterday that the stance of the final version of the law toward compulsory treatment for drug-addicts had been “softened slightly”, but remained a concern. “In essence, it’s still there,” he said.
“[The law] hasn’t done anything to close that gap between looking at the health issues and looking at the demand reduction issues associated with illicit drug use,” Harding said. “It’s done nothing to bring those two areas closer together apart from saying that it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that HIV prevention takes place.”
Harding said he was “surprised” to see several positive changes adopted in the final draft of the law: it dropped a previous definition a drug addict as anyone who “consumes drugs and is under the influence of drugs”, reduced the length of time for rehabilitation, and acknowledged that harm reduction is the responsibility of the government.
“We were relieved in a way that there have been a number of changes based on recommendations by the stakeholder network that have been actually taken up.”
Nevertheless, Harding said he was concerned about how people determined to be drug addicts would be treated. “Are there going to be legitimate treatment processes in place? Are people going to go through drug withdrawal without support? Are they going to be put in … pre-trial detention, for example?” he said.
Harding said the legislation would likely make life more difficult for drug addicts who may be caught between police eager to enforce the anti-drug provisions and service providers seeking to prevent the spread of HIV among injection drug-users.
The final draft of the law submitted to the National Assembly was not available yesterday but a June version obtained by the Post states that treatment and rehabilitation requires the voluntary consent of drug-users, except in a “special case” for the “benefit” of the drug-user, or if the person is “seriously addicted” and poses a threat to themselves or others.
The draft also contains a vague provision stating that treatment can be forced if the drug-user is “not willing”.
Olivier Lermet, country manager for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which provided comments to the government on the law, said in an email yesterday that his office’s efforts were aimed at promoting “voluntary, community and evidence informed forms of treatment”.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann said yesterday he had not yet seen the law, however, and senior Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap could not be reached.