Posters being raised around Phnom Penh are part of the government's anti-drug educational campaign targeting young people.
Prime Minister Hun Sen calls them victims not criminals. "They are people suffering
from a disease that they have no idea how to heal," he said at the National
Seminar on Drug Issues on May 6. "[These] people are badly in need of health
support and support from society."
He was talking about Cambodia's drug users. And there are many. They are rich and
poor, young and middle-aged, hard-working and idle. Drug experts say a flood of new
addicts is poised to overwhelm Cambodia's meager resources dedicated to the problem.
On November 26, officials from 13 ministries convened to discuss the first draft
of a Five-Year National Master Plan on drug control. Starting in 2004, the ambitious
agenda plans to make Cambodia drug-free by 2015.
Perhaps the largest hurdle it will face will be financial. The estimated cost of
the initial plan is $6.8 million. Massive expansion efforts are already expected.
It is still not known how much the government will give and how much the donor countries
are willing to put in.
Complementary to this, basic infrastructure for drug treatment needs to be built.
Healthcare workers need to be trained. The plan also faces resistance from people
who stand to lose once it is implemented, such as smugglers in the military, and
international criminal organisations. For now, the government's priority will focus
on curbing demand and offering treatment.
But defining the extent of the problem has just begun.
Six months ago, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng sent a letter to police officials
across the country to gauge the number of drug addicts in Cambodia. They produced
a list of 400 names for Phnom Penh, though no national figures were produced.
Graham Shaw, program officer of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC),
disputes that number.
"There are no real figures," he says. "We have estimated that half
a million people are users, based on Southeast Asian averages, which count for 4
percent of a population. But for the moment there is no way of knowing how widespread
it really is."
The five-year plan is the first sobering recognition by the government of the scale
of the growing drug problem. It was designed by various ministries coordinated by
the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD). UN agencies also extended advice
and recommendations to the government.
In the last six years, provincial drug control committees have been established,
as well as data collection procedures for law enforcement. Their capacity has been
limited because of budget constraints and a lack of technical expertise.
The delayed acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem means things could
get much worse before they get better.
But Khieu Sopheak, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, says, "the situation
is under control." He credits the success of cracking down on drug activity
including police action in 160 cases.
"Drugs are part of the problem of transitional crime facing all countries, not
just Cambodia," he said. "It is part of the government's four focus points,
which includes demand reduction, supply reduction, law enforcement and international
But Sopheak is optimistic. "Even now, we have no scientific statistics that
say that drugs are on the decrease, but in general it is in the process of decreasing."
According to the UN, however, the drug situation is "out of control". Shaw
says drugs are a time bomb waiting to explode.
In Phnom Penh alone, Shaw estimates at least 30,000 tablets of yama (metamphetamine)
are consumed daily. That is based on sources from the Cambodian law enforcement community.
The amount is substantiated by social, education and health workers in the field.
All sides concerned acknowledge that a grim situation exists 'out there'. So far,
young Cambodians and workers, the hardest hit demographic, have not been well equipped
to resist the new craze. The NACD calls it an alarming trend.
"We had no drug culture. Just sometimes using ganja in cooking during festivals,"
says Neak Yuthea, deputy director of the Department of Legislation, Education and
Prevention at the NACD. "There has never been a drug culture in Cambodia. Now,
methamphetamines are the new danger. Poor people are taking them to have energy to
work long hours; young people are taking them to be happy and crazy."
Methamphetamine, the most popular drug in Cambodia, is also the most openly available.
A single pill may sell for as low as 2000 riel on the streets. Factories producing
the drug have been traced to Burma, Thailand and, recently, Cambodia where an illicit
yama-producing factory was found in the province of Koh Kong in November 2002.
To confront the problem, the master plan will focus on education. It will give many
Cambodians access to information, and possibly rehabilitation, for the first time.
It also calls for legalisation of harm reduction methods, such as handing out clean
needles. This is a pragmatic approach still seen as controversial in some countries.
This initial emphasis to disseminate information is considered essential for Cambodia
where about half the population is under the age of 20. Increases in drug consumption
also threaten to complicate efforts to fight against HIV/AIDS.
Law enforcement is critical, as well. Although drug laws exist, they are rarely applied.
A 2002 UNODC report calls Cambodia's legal system weak and corrupt. Further increases
of drug trafficking in Cambodia followed a forceful and vigorous anti-drug campaign
in Thailand earlier this year. The three-month 'Shoot to Kill' campaign, which officially
ended on April 30, left Thailand with at least 2,274 deaths, according to press reports.
Cambodia has launched its own crackdown of sorts. According to the UNODC report,
military officials have repeatedly been implicated in drug smuggling. One low-ranking
military figure was arrested with over 61,000 methamphetamine tablets in 2002. The
suspect was later released under dubious circumstances, the report stated.
In 1996, 71 kg of high-quality heroin was found on a boat in Sre Ambel and, more
recently, 106 blocks of the drug was uncovered in a house in Toul Kork belonging
to a military intelligence official on October 1.
Sopheak agrees something must be done. In the last eight years, he said a drug culture
has rapidly established itself.
"Only since 1995, drugs have been available in Cambodia," he says. "It's
a very recent thing."
But statistics tell a different story. Long-term increases in both the trafficking
and the use of yama have been reported by the UNODC. Another strong indicator of
the growing drug trend is the decrease in the value of the drug.
The UN reports that the street price of methamphetamine in Cambodia has continued
its steady fall to around $1 per tablet-down from $1.50. It states that the trend
suggests "substantial quantities are still making it to a market that is unaware
of the dangerous consequences of the drug".
Who is at risk
Though particular parts of the country have been worse off, drug abuse has hit two
different segments of the population the hardest: impoverished laborers and young
There are conflicting views about which social group should be the priority of the
new anti-drug campaign.
The NACD has decided to focus on the labor sector. Workers are increasingly turning
to stimulants to keep them strong and awake.
"Taxi drivers, garment factory workers, builders and so many more people; it's
a dangerous cycle" says Yuthea. "They are poor, they need the money, they
need something to keep them going."
Among many workers, yama is viewed like a vitamin. It is used as an energy supplement
not necessarily as a recreational drug. This, according to the NADC, is what is most
"Their image of yama is not of a destructive, addictive, dangerous substance,"
says Yuthea. "For them, it is a medicine."
Most laborers work in highly populated areas, where the drug is easily available
and cheap. Border towns, such as Poipet, are particularly easy targets for drug pushers
as hundreds of people leave their families behind to work for subsistence wages.
"It's part of this terrible poverty trap we have in Cambodia," adds Yuthea.
"[Workers] are the ones that are most at risk. These people are our worry. They
are our labor, they are our economy. The young kids are not as a big a problem for
But some vehemently disagree. The spread of the drug use among children and teenagers,
although no precise figures exist, is by all indications out of control.
As David Harding, a technical assistant with Mith Samlanh/Friends says, "Yama
is endemic. It is pandemic. Kids are not taking yama because they live on the streets:
they live on the streets because of yama."
Professor Ka Sunbaunat, vice-dean at the Faculty of Medicine, says that kids from
middle-class homes are most vulnerable to the perils of drug addiction. He has accepted
nearly 200 addicts into his private psychiatric clinic
"These are the people who are setting a trend, following the fashion and in
doing so allowing yama use to spread quickly," Sunbaunat says.
An increasing percentage of Cambodia's urban young are growing up in a society where
parents are working hard and money is readily available. Of the 200 patients Sunbaunat
has seen, most of them have been boys. He says 99 percent of the cases were yama-related.
"This new middle class has money and time on their hands," says Sunbaunat.
"There is no infrastructure for the kids. The parents think that they just have
to tell them to be good and they will listen. But there is the internet, cable TV
and so much more to tell them not to listen."
Whereas once parents were looked to for advice, today the family balance has shifted.
"Bad friends, boredom and ignorant parents are the threat to all these middle-class
kids," he says.
A survey conducted at the end of 2001 among 3500 students in schools in Phnom Penh,
Battambang and Sihanoukville, showed that one in five between the ages of 14 and
17 had tried some kind of drug.
This reveals a high level of drug awareness. But what is more worrying, says Graham
Shaw, is that teachers said the target age was not correct.
"We should have questioned from nine years of age upwards," he says.
For the addicts who seek rehabilitation, the choices are stark. There are no state-run
clinics. Parents can bring their children for a consultation with a doctor, but there
is no medical facility to specifically treat drug abuse.
"There is nothing," says Sunbaunat. "If your parents are rich enough
then you can be lucky and be sent to some clinic in a neighbouring country. But your
average family has no options for their child."
At present the only government-run facility is called Chom Chao Rehabilitation Center
on the outskirts of Phnom Penh along Route 4. It lacks trained medical personnel.
Children are either sent there by their own parents or by police. To fill their days,
they have a choice of English lessons or cutting the grass in the middle of the large
courtyard. Most of them are simply locked up until they are deemed well enough to
The NACD states all provinces should be equipped with some form of treatment centre
in the coming years. In the first phase of the Five-Year Plan, treatment centres
will be built in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Poipet.
"Proper medical treatment is crucial," says Sunbaunat. "Most doctors
think that drug abuse is a question of substance abuse. They don't want to deal with
the why, how and the psychological after-effects of addiction. This is not the way
to handle a rapidly growing drug-abusing generation."
In the next year, children of all ages in schools will receive some kind of drug
awareness class under the plan. Factory workers will be able to take part in drug
control committees with trade unions and management. A campaign for public drug awareness
has also been launched.
The main sources of information are radio call-in shows, TV programs and plays. Large
anti-drug campaign posters have sprung up across the city. The slogan is, "Don't
"We need to blitz the schools, students and teachers included," says Shaw,
whose UN agency has sponsored some of the educational materials used during the Water
Festival and the posters. "Drug education is the means of stopping the situation
from getting worse."
Yet parents need as much information as kids do. Without previous exposure to addictive
drugs, many are totally unprepared.
"The Government is responsible but so are the parents," says Sopheak. "Parents
must know that it is their problem as well. We cannot do everything. They must be
The Vemean Tep Cinema offered one source of information last month when the Khmer
film Insects That Play with Fire was showing. The film attempted to be realistic
and portray the grim reality of yama addiction.
Billboards promoting the film said it all. A young girl lay dazed in bed while boys
rode motorbikes and gangsters brandished guns. The film, the first of its kind to
deal with drug addiction among students, depicted the grim reality of drug abuse
for some: the violence, the family breakdown and the criminality.
It was, according to students at Paññasastra University, a popular
"We went in to see it with the whole class," says one student. "We
understood what it was about. We all know that this is happening."