AUTHORITIES will expand a controversial drug treatment programme using a little-known herbal medication, officials said Monday, following the end of a 10-day trial that has drawn outrage from rights groups and concern from UN officials.
Twenty-one people – drug users plucked from the streets in dragnets widely condemned by rights groups – were released Monday after 10 days of detoxification treatment involving a Vietnamese-manufactured herbal medication called Bong Sen.
“The 10-day programme trained our doctors to become experts to cure addicted people by using Bong Sen,” said Neak Yuthea, director of the Legislation, Education and Rehabilitation Department of the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD). “This treatment by using Bong Sen is very effective.”
Neak Yuthea said authorities have formed a committee, including officials from the Social Affairs and Health ministries, as well as the NACD to look at expanding the programme – likely within the capital.
“There are many interpretations about our treatment,” Neak Yuthea said. “But we did not arrest people or force them into an experiment. We cured them.”
News of plans to expand the programme was greeted with outrage by rights groups.
“If by expanding the trial they mean continuing with arbitrary arrests, then that would be outrageous,” said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with local rights group Licadho.
“This whole thing is already outrageous.”
The drug users had been kept at Orkas Khnom, or My Chance, a drug treatment centre on the outskirts of the city run by Phnom Penh’s Department of Social Affairs.
On Monday, they were released and driven to where officials believed they lived.
Neak Yuthea said some were going to be returned to their home villages. Others were dropped off around the capital, including in the Boeung Trabek area in a neighbourhood popular among some drug users.
One man, who asked not to be identified, told the Post he volunteered for the trial after being asked by police officers.
“They told me the treatment had been successful in Vietnam, so I thought I would try,” said the man, a heroin user for seven years.
On his chest, the man wore a gold badge, bearing the name of the drug, as well as the logo of Fataco Ban Tre, the Vietnamese company that manufactures Bong Sen and participated in the trial.
The man, clutching a copy of a certificate of completion from officials involved with the trial, as well as a group photo showing other participants and a Fataco Ban Tre official, said he believed Bong Sen had helped him.
“Before, I used drugs to forget about my family problems. I wanted to stop, but it was hard to do by myself,” he said. “The trial was good because I don’t think about taking drugs anymore. Now I just want to eat.”
But UN officials said they were worried that the treatment programme was lacking in basic follow-up supports necessary to ensure its success. It is unclear whether participants will be offered counselling, regular health checks or vocational training, for example – services that are in short supply in Cambodia.
“Detoxification is just the first part of the process,” said Graham Shaw, technical officer on drug use with the World Health Organisation in Cambodia.
“Evidence shows people will relapse several times or more before they finally kick the habit completely.”
At the moment, follow-up services are offered predominantly by a smattering of NGOs, he said.
“They’re very few and far between, even for people who are not drug users,” Shaw said.
The drug trial appears to be the product of drug policy ties between Cambodia and the Vietnamese government, which has previously pledged to provide medical equipment, addiction medication and experts to build detoxification centres.
Deputy Prime Minister and NACD head Ke Kim Yan advocated for Bong Sen’s introduction in Cambodia following an August visit to Vietnam, said Neak Yuthea.
Earlier this month, officials originally asked Mith Samlanh and Korsang, two local groups that work with street drug users, to “cooperate” in the trial by encouraging their clients to participate, Neak Yuthea said. Both organisations declined.