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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Top illicit-drug enforcer lines up for pharmaceutical monopoly

Top illicit-drug enforcer lines up for pharmaceutical monopoly

Top illicit-drug enforcer lines up for pharmaceutical monopoly

Without proper headquarters or a listing in the phone book, Asia Delta Service is

a tough business to pin down. Its founder and lone employee, Chrun Sophal, runs Asia

Delta Service out of his home in Tuol Kok, and said the company promotes foreign

investment into Cambodia.

By day, however, Sophal is director of the National Authority on Combating Drugs

law enforcement department, policing the flow of drugs into Cambodia and trying to

separate the legal from the illegal.

"My company is only me," he said, of his sideline business.

But according to documentation obtained by the Post, Asia Delta Service may be on

the verge of expansion.

The Ministry of Health appears poised to grant the tiny business exclusive import

rights for all psychotropic and narcotic pharmaceuticals, making Asia Delta Service

Cambodia's sole supplier of the drugs to pharmacies and hospitals. Medicinal narcotics

such as morphine are highly addictive and require strict controls to prevent illegal

trafficking. Psychotropic medications, including anti-depressants and hallucinogens,

pose a similar threat.

The proposed move would effectively monopolize a market that is now divided among

at least four authorized importers, raising concerns over future pricing and regulation

of the drugs.

Secretary of State Ung Phyrun oversees pharmaceuticals in the ministry. He said the

importation and regulation of controlled substances would be more efficient with

only one company at the helm.

"But we haven't decided on a company yet," Phyrun said.

"It is not only Asia Delta Service, but there are many companies that applied

to the ministry [to receive an exclusive contract]," he said. Phyrun declined

to name the other companies that applied.

Calls to over a dozen pharmaceutical importers, including several now authorized

to deal with controlled substances, revealed that none had received word of the proposed

change.

"If we had heard about it we would have applied," said Chhim Vorlak Phea,

assistant manager at Depomex.

The Post obtained an unsigned draft copy of the Ministry of Health contract for Asia

Delta Service. It included detailed reporting and licensing provisions, as well as

stipulations that required the company to equitably price and distribute the drugs

according to local demand. The contract expires after one year.

Though the deal has not been finalized, industry sources are already worried.

Some critics warned that the market price for the pharmaceuticals would inevitably

rise without competition among several importers. Others noted that despite Sophal's

background in drug enforcement, his company had no track record or obvious capacity

to handle the red tape required for the shipment and distribution of controlled substances.

"If [the Ministry of Health] wants to grant an exclusive contract, then it should

go to a large company that has shown it can comply with the laws and regulations,"

said an industry source on condition of anonymity.

Based out of Vienna, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is an independent

organization that governs the global trade of controlled substances by issuing drug

quota guidelines to countries based on population size.

Precise statistics on the legal sale of such drugs inside Cambodia are difficult

to come by, but industry observers agree that legitimate demand for the products

is relatively low. The import controls, however, exist to block the illegal flow

of narcotics across the border into Vietnam and Laos, where the drugs are worth far

more on the black market.

In April, Cambodia officially

signed into law the INCB's three major drug control accords. To comply, the Ministry

of Health must estimate its annual needs in advance, and then submit a report to

the INCB for approval.

After the drugs are shipped into the country, the ministry must file quarterly reports

to confirm that the drugs were received. Without ministry approval, private import

companies are barred from bringing lawful controlled substances into Cambodia.

Sim Sovannara is deputy managing director at Cyspharma, one of only four pharmaceutical

importers authorized by the Ministry of Health. Sovannara said that importing Lexomil,

an anti-anxiety medicine manufactured in France, took her company approximately six

months to organize and import.

"We have to ask permission from both the Ministry of Health in Cambodia, and

also in France," she said. "The paperwork takes a long time."

Nevertheless, Sovannara said her company would have been interested in bidding on

an exclusive contract with the Ministry of Health, if it had received notification.

For his part, Chrun Sophal claimed that two months ago an unnamed ministry official

encouraged him to submit an application to import controlled substances. Though his

company had no prior experience, Sophal said the official assured him he would be

awarded the contract within a week.

"[The official] knew I worked at the National Authority on Combating Drugs,

and I clearly knew about [controlled substances]," he said.

"But I am tired of waiting for an answer, because I have waited for two months

already," Sophal said.

In his day job at the NACD, Sophal coordinates the control of all drugs coming into

Cambodia. If the Ministry of Health does award Asia Delta Service the exclusive contract

for imports, Sophal will essentially authorize his own cargo.

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