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Cambodia’s young users

A police officer sorts though chemistry equipment thought to be used in the production of narcotics
A police officer sorts though chemistry equipment thought to be used in the production of narcotics during a raid in Kampong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district in 2012. Heng Chivoan

Cambodia’s young users

Injecting methamphetamines is on the rise in Cambodia, particularly among younger addicts, as recreational users have begun to switch from smoking and pill-popping to mainlining, a report by the Australian National Council on Drugs suggests.

The report, released yesterday, details how amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and their precursors are manufactured – primarily in Myanmar – and transported through the region, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

The trend towards injecting constitutes “a major public health issue … and swift action is needed to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne viruses,” the report says.

It found a general trend towards the increasing use of ATS among the under-25 population in Cambodia, one of only three countries in the study where the trend existed.

During a break from classes yesterday, a group of university students in Phnom Penh told the Post how meth had become a drug of choice among their peers.

A 20-year-old student from a well-known university in the capital, who wished to remain anonymous, said that her friends regularly booked rooms in guesthouses in the capital to hold meth-fuelled gatherings.

“My boyfriend’s friends started [taking] meth about six months ago. They have parties most weekends and sometimes get trouble from police,” she said yesterday. “It has changed [them]. They do not work so much now.”

A male student from Kampong Speu province studying at the same university said that the parties had become a favoured pastime among some students. “The popular kids and kids with more money like to do it,” he said.

When asked about the risk of HIV infection, another student said: “[The students] are not safe.”

The government has estimated that up to 75,000 people, mostly young people, use illegal drugs in the country. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has said this is of particular concern, as more than half the population is under the age of 25.

Keo Kim Dara, deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said he was not aware of meth being a significant problem among students.

“It’s on a very small scale; not a lot,” he said. “More often it’s government workers, Vietnamese workers and some foreigners.”

Street children were also highlighted as an at-risk group in the report, with evidence pointing to an estimated 50 per cent of street-dwelling children having used drugs.

Despite the increasing prevalence of injecting ATS, consuming meth in pill form remains the primary method of taking the drug in Cambodia, the report added.

Compared with other capitals in the region, it found that ATS-taking levels in Phnom Penh were on par with Kuala Lumpur and slightly lower than Yangon and Bangkok, but higher than in Beijing, Vientiane, Brunei, Jakarta, Manila, Singapore and Hanoi.

Prostitutes and gay men were also identified as at high risk, with HIV rates among female sex workers found to be between 20 and 30 per cent depending on the province.

Dr Masami Fujita, HIV and tuberculosis team leader at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia, said that an unpublished government survey into HIV rates among drug users showed that, overall, injecting was up, but that there did not appear to be a corresponding increase in HIV rates.

“The number of injections is up overall. The National Center for HIV and the National Center for Drug Control conducted an estimation last year, and in the findings from 2007 to 2012, there doesn’t seem to be a substantive increase [in HIV rates],” he said. “But sharing needles is extremely high.

“Many females using drugs are also selling sex. In previous surveys of adults who are using ATS, there was no clear sign of high rates of HIV. However, females seemed to have higher rates.”

The government’s drug policies have been widely criticised, with treatment at its drug detention centres labelled “sadistic” by Human Rights Watch in 2010.

Professor Robert Ali, chair of the Asia-Pacific Drugs and Development Issues Committee, which helped produce the report, said in a statement that the drug detention centres were only adding to
the problem.

“The evidence is clear that this [incarceration of drug users] can have serious negative public health implications as people who use drugs are at greater risk of contracting HIV and are engaging in even riskier drug use practices in detention centres,” he said.

But Fujita of the WHO thinks that things are changing for the better.

“The government is taking clearly the position that drug users are victims, but this position might not be shared across government [departments] and implemented,” he said.

“The authorities issue licences to a number of NGOs to implement a needle distribution service. This is commendable that Cambodia has a policy of clean needle exchange.”

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