Among experts and NGO workers involved in combatting drug use, conclusions on ice's impact are mixed. But at the forefront of Phnom Penh's street-drug culture, addicts tell of a powerful and seductive new form of smokable speed that is rapidly finding new followers.
s use of the cheap methamphetamine "yama" soars across Cambodia, a more
expensive and purer variation of the drug, known on the street as "ice",
is finding a growing market among those who can afford it.
Ice is the purest form of methamphetamine hydrochloride, also called "crystal"
or "meth", and gets its street name from the clear crystal rocks it is
sold as, which resemble small chips of ice.
"Ice is a relatively new phenomenon in Cambodia," said Graham Shaw, program
officer at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "But there
have been an increasing number of reports of seizures. The first seizure was in 2004."
Shaw said that the UNODC and Cambodian authorities do not know much about ice in
Cambodia, and he is not aware of any plans by a policing agency to further investigate
the origin or impact of the drug.
"It is still a low-level issue ... yama tablets are a much greater concern in
terms of number of users," Shaw said.
Dr. Meaf Vyrith, director of forensics at the NACD, said that they need many more
ice seizures in order to determine the drug's origin.
"We have only tested ten samples from different seizures, and we need more than
200-300 samples," Vyrith said.
David Harding, director of the NGO Friends, which works with streetkids, said that
ice has been around since 2001 but disappeared after a short spurt of popularity.
"It has become popular again over the last year ... [but] I get the feeling
that it has come back pretty strong this time," Harding said.
"Before, the moneyed kids would just sell and use it in guesthouses. But now
with the popularity of these new mega-clubs like U2 and Spark, these kids are using
it a lot more."
"A lot of these middle class kids, bong tom gangsters, are using it and pushing
it on the streets," Harding said. "They have a lifestyle with impunity,
so they spend a lot of time on the street earning money. From the combination of
the money from street crime and the money they get from parents, they are loaded."
Holly Bradford, director of Cambodian Harm Reduction (CHR), confirmed Harding's observations.
"It is less in the street and more among the middle and upper class ... but
we see a lot of people that are switching to ice," said Bradford.
Word on the streets
A 25-year-old male drug user from a well-to-do family in Phnom Penh said he sees
more and more ice being used in Phnom Penh.
"Mostly rich kids have ice - political kids," he said. "A lot of people
haven't even tried it because of the price, but I think that a lot more people will
be using it in the future."
Ice generally sells for about $25 per gram on the streets, but is often sold in smaller
quantites because it's so expensive. Bags worth $5 and $10 are most commonly sold.
By comparison, one yama pill costs about 5,000 riel.
The drug user's girlfriend, a 19-year-old sex worker, said she regularly smokes ice
with her clients.
"Everytime I catch a trick with someone that has ice, I get high," she
said. "Everybody is doing it now with their clients. I would say 60 percent
of the prostitutes I know do ice."
She said she has been using amphetamines for one year and started using ice about
seven months ago.
"I do ice with all types of clients: rich kids, government officials, guys from
drug enforcement ... the clients bring it with them," she said.
"Ice lasts longer [than yama] and sometimes I don't come down for, like, five
days. One time I smoked [non-stop for] one-and-a-half days, and I didn't sleep for
When she first started smoking, she said she used ice about twice a month, but now
she smokes about once per week.
"If I had to pick between ice and pills [yama], I would choose ice because it
tastes good," she said. "I take a hit and I just want to have fun."
According to one ice dealer who spoke to the Post, ice use has dramatically increased
on the streets in the past few months.
"A lot of people are selling it on the streets; kids are selling it. You can
make more money selling ice than yama," said the dealer on condition of anonymity.
He makes $50 a week at his normal job and another $20 a week selling ice.
"It is not my priority selling. I just sell to those around me. But the real
dealers are selling between two and three [grams] per day. They make a lot of money,"
Because ice is so strong and expensive, he said many users usually mix it with yama
when they smoke.
"People were already addicted to yama. They start feeding, and the body starts
needing it. Now they can't have one without the other," the dealer said. "Things
are going to get a lot worse because of the ice. The more speed, the more addicted
people are going to be."
Another reason people are making the switch, he said, is to guarantee the purity
of their drugs.
"Many of the [yama] pills are diluted now. They take a pill and cut it and put
something else in," he explained. "Before, one yama pill would mess you
up all night. Now I have to smoke three pills at a time. With ice you only need a
Meth is a potent central-nervous-system stimulant that affects neurotransmitters
in the brain responsible for regulating heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure,
appetite, attention, mood, and responses. It can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or
Pure methamphetamine is made from a concoction of highly toxic ingredients including
over-the-counter cold and asthma medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine,
red phosphorous, hydrochloric acid, drain cleaner, battery acid, lye, kerosene, and
"I have been in meth labs [in another country] and the paint on the walls starts
to peel off from the meth vapor," an ice addict in Phnom Penh said. "That
shit is so toxic, I once saw a beer can fall into the meth while they were cooking
it, and the can melted."
According to various Web sites devoted to the drug, users experience an increased
short-term focus and mental alertness, an elimination of fatigue as well as a decrease
in appetite. These effects give the user a sense of euphoria, well-being, intelligence,
"You feel up, can't stay still. It's just like [the prescription drug] Ritalin,"
explained the Phnom Penh ice dealer, "You can function on ice; you can work
on it and concentrate."
The side effects, however, can be severe.
Ice users may suffer psychological addiction, depression, impotence, long-term cognitive
impairment, damage to immune system and even death.
"I get irritated all the time now, and sometimes I want to cut someone's head
off," one user said. "I want to quit, but whenever I see it, it just gives
me a craving."
He has also noticed the effect of ice on other users.
"Many of the people that I know that are doing ice don't want to mess with anybody
anymore. They lock their doors and don't answer for anybody."
Another anonymous ice dealer who also uses the drug reported similar negative impacts.
"You get a quick temper, think a lot, start stressing, and when your body is
lacking, you find any excuse to smoke," the dealer said. "You find any
excuse to get agitated, like my shirt is blue; I think fuck, my shirt is blue, I
need to go smoke."
As with most drugs, the reasons people are turning to ice are varied but often originate
"Some people are smoking to cover their fears, and then they are smoking because
they are addicted," said the dealer. "Everyone I know that started to smoke
was because they were going through some relationship problems. And then after that,
they were addicted."
He has tried to stop using ice. A few months ago he would smoke $100 worth per day.
"I tried to pull off and quit for three months. I was sick, puking and with
a headache for two months."
"I can't completely stop," he said, "but I have come down a lot in
the amount that I use."