AUTHORITIES have begun testing a controversial drug detoxification medication on street heroin users in Phnom Penh, sparking condemnation from a local rights group and concern from UN and US embassy officials.
Human rights groups are alarmed at how subjects were chosen for the trial, accusing authorities of arbitrarily arresting drug users from the street and forcing them to undergo treatment with an unproven medication.
“It’s a grave abuse of these people,” said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with local rights group Licadho. “They are using these arbitrary arrests to get these drug users off the street. Added to that, they are forcing people to take medicine without proper consent.”
Government officials insist the drug users went willingly and consented to undergo the trials, which involve the use of a Vietnamese-manufactured medication called Bong Sen.
Pellerin, however, disputed the suggestions, saying the roundup follows an established pattern of street sweeps and arrests of drug users, sex workers and other marginalised people.
“To say that these people were willing to go is absurd,” he said. “We’ve had so many reports of these street sweeps when these people are often violently taken out of the street into the centre. It’s not enough for them to say that there is a piece of paper they sign when they are at the centre. It’s quite easy to make people sign anything under duress.”
Trial was ‘voluntary’
Authorities, however, insist the drug users are willing participants in the trial, which began Sunday.
“We did not arrest them,” said Moek Dara, secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD), which is administering the trial. “These people volunteered to go to the centre. We want to detoxify them and get them to stop using drugs.”
But the nature of the trial has caused concern among some international officials.
The 17 drug users were sent to Orkas Knhom, or My Chance, a drug treatment centre on the outskirts of the city run by Phnom Penh’s Department of Social Affairs.
“We are aware of the issue and have concerns regarding informed consent,” said US embassy spokesman John Johnson in a statement. “An embassy official has visited the centre and expressed our concerns to the Royal government.”
Officials with the World Health Organisation (WHO) took issue with use of the drug the test subjects will be given. Bong Sen’s manufacturers say the orally administered medication will block cravings and assist users in quitting drugs as part of a seven-day treatment, but the drug hasn’t been registered for use in Cambodia and little is known about its efficacy or side effects.
The WHO’s acting head in Cambodia, Michel Thieren, said it appears the drug hasn’t undergone a standard inspection process from Cambodia’s medical ethical review committee.
“They review all those protocols and give clearance for a clinical trial to start and make sure anyone involved is providing informed consent. Those are the rules that need to be in place for initiating any new trial on any new drug,” Thieren said.
“Here it looks like that critical step has not been rigorously applied. It is important to reaffirm the importance of implementing this in all cases.”
News of the trial comes after authorities approached two local organisations that work with drug users last week, in search of heroin users for the treatment.
Friends International and Korsang, who were approached, both declined to participate.
The trial also appears to be the product of drug policy ties between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments.
In September, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Truong Vinh Trong pledged support for Cambodia’s drug-abuse prevention efforts during a four-day visit, according to a Vietnamese embassy statement.
“Vietnam is prepared to meet any requests by Cambodia to help it prevent and combat drugs, including sending Vietnamese experts to Cambodia to build detoxification centres … and providing medical equipment and Vietnamese-produced medicine to help drug addicts kick ... their habits,” the statement read.
Directors of Fataco Ban Tre, the Ho Chi Minh City-based firm that manufactures the drug, accompanied Vietnamese delegates on the September trip and delivered 100 doses of Bong Sen to the Cambodian government, according to a statement on the company’s Web site. Company officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The NACD’s Moek Dara said Cambodian officials requested the drugs.
“The Vietnamese government has successfully implemented the programme of using Bong Sen on thousands of people in Vietnam,” Moek Dara said. “The NACD asked Vietnam to provide us medication.”
In the meantime, Moek Dara said the scope of the current trial could expand.
“These 17 people are the first group that we will test,” he said. “If the trial is successful, we will compile a document about the treatment and share the treatment with other drug users.”