With the Kingdom in the middle of a controversial “war on drugs”, six Mekong countries agreed yesterday to adopt a regional drug policy that puts health care first, and mandates police and judicial cooperation.
Ministers and delegates from Cambodia, China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand met with representatives from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) over three days, culminating in yesterday’s agreement, billed as “a coordinated regional response to drug production, trafficking, and use”.
Jeremy Douglas, regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for UNODC, explained that as the region integrates more, efforts to combat the effects of drugs must become more coordinated. The new regional policy will focus on health-based solutions, law enforcement cooperation to address porous borders and judicial cooperation.
But, he said during the conference, “Health needs to come first.”
Cambodia has long been criticised for the involuntary detention of drug users in “rehabilitation centres” that some describe as torturous and devoid of genuine treatment.
And despite assurances that the new policy would put health first, the president of Cambodia’s National Authority for Combating Drugs, Ke Kim Yan, glossed over health issues in his statements.
Instead, Kim Yan, who once suggested giving local authorities the power to unilaterally sentence drug users to involuntary detention, said three separate times that it was “especially important” to prevent trafficking.
In an interview following the conference, the UNODC’s Douglas acknowledged that Cambodia’s policies have often been “heavy-handed” and “regressive”, and said change would not come “overnight”.
“What we’ve done is we’ve quite successfully lobbied the government ... to agree to a collective approach, which is called community-based treatment,” Douglas said, adding that all the Mekong countries adopted the version of community treatment promoted by UNODC and the World Health Organization.
Noting that Cambodia is often strongly averse to any perceived outside interference, independent drug expert David Harding said: “It is an important step that Cambodia and these other countries are acknowledging these recommendations and the UNODC.”
But, Harding said he was wary of Cambodia’s motivations for joining the agreement. “I worry they may point to their cooperation with the UNODC as a way of legitimising their drug war.”