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NGOs preach support, not prison, for users

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An addict uses a needle to inject drugs on a side street of Phnom Penh in 2009. Heng Chivoan

NGOs preach support, not prison, for users

With the Kingdom’s drug-using community consistently facing stigmatisation and incarceration rather than treatment, two drug-harm-reduction NGOs today are aiming to bring awareness to the global “Support, Don’t Punish” initiative, aimed at pushing for less oppressive drug policies and a focus on human rights.

The meeting, slated for today, is being held ahead of the “Day of Global Action” against the international war on drugs on June 26. KHANA, a national NGO specialising in HIV prevention, along with local organisation Korsang, is working to improve the relationship between drug users and the NGOs, local government offices and international policy bodies that affect them.

The campaign, according to KHANA, is meant to improve and soften “policies that impede on harm reduction programs and drive people away from health services”, as well as to provide general awareness of drug issues in Cambodia. The group says harm-reduction measures have largely fallen on deaf ears, mostly due to a lack of legal coordination, as well as police discrimination against users.

“We have worked to try to reduce the number of arrests . . . and refer drug users to harm-reduction and voluntary treatment, but it takes more time and effort,” KHANA project manager Sou Sochenda said on Monday.

International Drug Policy Consortium senior policy officer Gloria Lai says that treatment centres are often too poorly equipped to offer any kind of help.

“In Cambodia, people who are caught using drugs are supposedly sent to ‘rehabilitation’ but people are in fact locked up in facilities that offer no health services and subject them to abuse,” she said.

A 2012 study KHANA participated in estimates that there are 13,000 drug users in Cambodia. Amphetamine-type stimulants are the most widely abused substances, though, according to Lai, there are “scarcely any harm-reduction” or effective treatments available for such users.

Additionally, the organisation says that HIV prevalence among the 1,300 that inject their drugs is high – at 24.8 per cent – with 31.9 per cent reporting reusing needles and syringes in the past 12 months.

John Collins, coordinator of the International Drug Policy Project at the London School of Economics, said Cambodia should focus its limited resources on policies that have proven to be effective.

“Money and efforts should be directed towards scaling up public health, harm reduction programs and ensuring voluntary access to community-based treatment services,” he said.

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