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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Drug war nets hundreds

LyLy Food Industry shop owner, Ms. Keo Mom (LyLy) invites Posenchey district police to educate their 200 staff members of the company about drug prevention yesterday in Phnom Penh.
LyLy Food Industry shop owner, Ms. Keo Mom (LyLy) invites Posenchey district police to educate their 200 staff members of the company about drug prevention yesterday in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Drug war nets hundreds

More than 400 people have been arrested for drug crimes since a new six-month narcotics crackdown started on New Year’s Day, police said yesterday, though a rehabilitation expert called the campaign “another attempt at a war on drugs” that was destined to fail.

A total of 409 people have been arrested in 145 cases since police began the campaign on January 1, according to the Interior Ministry’s secretariat chief, Kim Khoeun, who is overseeing the program. Khoeun said he expected far more arrests in the coming days.

“This is just the start of the campaign, and we are not yet reaching the whole country. In the first week, we have a good result,” he said, adding that 233 of those arrested were traffickers, 173 were users and three worked cutting drugs with other substances.

“For traffickers, let there be no doubts: They were sent [to prison] in less than five hours,” he said. “For those who are light addicts, they were sent to get education and treatment in their location. For heavy users, they were sent to a rehabilitation centre.”

Khoeun said the campaign was being carried out in tandem with prevention measures.

“Drugs cannot be dealt with only by police and military; it must be linked with . . . the health sector, education sector, tourism and even drivers,” he said.

Phnom Penh drug rehabilitation centre head Mom Channyda said there had been a marked increase in the number of addicts admitted to her centre in the past days, though she did not have specific figures available.

The government-run centres have come in for criticism at numerous times in the past, with a 2010 Human Rights Watch report describing forced detention and beatings of those kept at the facilities.

Pin Sokhom, a drug specialist and program manager at NGO Mith Samlanh, which works with children living on the streets, said his organisation’s treatment centre was strictly voluntary, and that he had seen no major increase in people seeking help.

He said that he doubted a campaign of mass arrests would lead to more addicts deciding to become clean and committing to it. “In just one week, the drugs will get out of their bodies,” Sokhom said. “What’s important is to treat their mental state and character.”

Of the 200 newcomers that Mith Samlanh receives on average each year, he added, about 10 to 15 percent ended up returning to their drug habit, despite existing anti-drug campaigns.

“There is actually a heavy anti-drug campaign run by the media, but why do people still use them? Drugs have now reached everywhere in Cambodia, even remote indigenous people,” he said. “The drug market is rampant and treatment needs to provide skills and education.”

David Harding, a drug prevention and treatment expert who has worked with drug users in Cambodia for the past 15 years, said he agreed that arresting large numbers of street-level dealers and users would prove unsustainable and could not be a long-term solution.

“I’m not sure drug centres are equipped to deal with that many people, and the only alternative is prisons – they’re massively over capacity as well,” Harding said. He added that such crackdowns tended to have little impact in acting as a deterrent to drug use.

“It never has anywhere and never will,” he said. “It’s another attempt at a war on drugs, and as we’ve seen in the past 25 to 30 years, that hasn’t worked.”

“People who are drug dependent are going to continue to take those risks, because their addiction compulsion is stronger than the possibility of arrest.”

Harding said that the government should consider working with community-based treatment programs to help drug users overcome the addictions that make heavy-handed crackdowns on narcotics so difficult.

“All they’re doing is wasting a lot of money and time for what is a social-political statement: ‘We are doing something’,” he said. “What they’re doing is not going to have any effect apart from news headlines.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ERIN HANDLEY

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