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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Drug users take a hit as police raids force them into hiding

Drug users take a hit as police raids force them into hiding

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Local NGOs condemn a spate of police raids targeting Phnom Penh’s injection drug users, saying it makes it more difficult to educate or deliver services to at-risk communities

Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY

A man who says police shot him in the stomach two weeks ago as he fled a raid smokes yaba in Boeung Trabek.

Ongoing police raids in a known injection drug user area in Boeung Trabek have angered many NGOs that say this brutal and punitive style of law enforcement not only endangers Phnom Penh's drug users but also the general population.

"The raids heighten the public health risk because drug users engage with non-drug users. The more at-risk drug users are, the more at risk the general populace is," said David Harding, a drug specialist at Friends International.

Holly Bradford, founder of Korsang, a harm-reduction NGO, said she knew of around 50 drug users who were picked up and placed in Orkas Khnom, a government treatment centre.

"The raids have scattered drug users throughout the community. It has driven them underground," Harding said.

Four female drug users, who were picked up by police and released after a day because of a lack of capacity to detain female drug users, told the Post graphic stories of police abuse.

The more at risk drug users are, the more at risk the general populace is.

One woman pointed to bruises on her back and ribs and said she had been kicked and hit repeatedly by police officers. Another woman said she had been hit on the head with a police baton.

"Everybody gets beaten by the police - both men and women," a third woman said.

One woman said that the police intentionally stationed themselves between a major drug injection area and Korsang, an NGO that distributes sterilised needles to encourage users to inject more safely.

One male drug user said he had been shot in the stomach by police two weeks ago as he tried to escape a raid, lifting a bandage to reveal what appeared to be a bullet wound.

Earlier in the year, people who worked with drug users were optimistic that the government was finally taking steps towards adopting a harm-reduction approach to curb illicit drug use.

The much-lauded National Strategic Plan for Illicit Drug Use was supposed to ensure that different areas of government had the same goal of reducing HIV rates and eliminating the stigma of being a drug user.

But Graham Shaw, a technical officer at the World Health Organisation, said: "One of the missing links of the Strategic Plan was training police about their role in public health."

Shaw blamed the lack of awareness among senior law enforcement officers about harm-reduction techniques.

"A lot more needs to be done in the law enforcement aspect. The World Health Organisation is doing a lot in the health aspect, but one without the other is not enough," Shaw said.

Harding  said: "There are elements of the Strategic Plan that involve reaching out to drug users, but obviously, if you can't reach them, you can't provide anything to them ... Different government institutions seem to be moving in opposite directions.

"Right now, there is a strong punitive approach to drug demand reduction. It's a reversal from the social approach in the Strategic Plan," he said.

In the meantime, more and more users are ending up in Orkas Khnom, a military-run, forced detoxification centre.

According to Frederick Curtis, a senior technical officer at Family Health International, the conditions at Orkas Khnom have improved greatly. Detainees have three nutritious meals a day and have safe drinking water.

But Bradford at Korsang said rounding up drug users and detaining them in mandatory detox centres was more likely to put them in danger.

"There is not one bit of scientific research that says forced detention works for drug users. They come back, and they are at huge risk for overdose."

Harding said the government treatment centres are "completely unequipped to deal with human beings in any way shape or form".

Without giving an explanation, Orkas Khnom has refused to receive a doctor from Korsang, according to Korsang's physician, Dr Vannda Kab, who said Orkas Khnom does not have a doctor who can safely deliver medicines.

Korsang has been unable to ensure that HIV-positive or tubercular patients receive the necessary medicine or support during withdrawal.

"Right now, users are suffering. Withdrawal without proper meds is painful," Bradford said.

This summer, the Ministry of Health is planning to launch a methadone maintenance pilot program, but many fear that harsh police treatment will undermine efforts to use methadone to humanely detox heroin addicts.

Shaw said the raids "will have a major negative impact on the confidence of drug users to use methadone treatment".

Moek Dara, director of the anti-drug department at the Ministry of Interior, would not comment on the recent police raids.

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