Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said a specific mechanism will be established by the NATIONAL Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD), relevant institutions and police to closely monitor the import of certain chemicals from abroad into Cambodia after the police seized more than 2,300kg of drugs and up to 84 tonnes of chemicals used for their production in Kampong Speu province earlier this month.

Sar Kheng made the remarks at the inauguration of the country’s first rehabilitation centre for juveniles in Barkou commune of Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district on December 28.

He said that while Cambodia has brought Covid-19 under control, illegal drugs remain a “chronic disease” that will only get worse in the future if people do not work hard to address it.

“With this drug problem, we will set up a specific mechanism with the NACD which deals with the relevant ministries and police who grant licences [to import chemicals]. This will enable them to monitor from the beginning to the end the import of chemicals from abroad so that they can prevent drug production in our country,” he said.

Sar Kheng recalled that earlier this month, the police seized more than 2,300kg of drugs in two operations in Kampong Speu province’s Oral district. A company involved in this case had received a licence from the ministry and the police to import raw materials and chemicals to make many kinds of fertilisers there. And a second raid in Phnom Penh recently also netted more than 300kg of synthetic drugs.

He explained that after the company had imported the chemicals, it did not make fertilisers but instead used them as ingredients in a laboratory making the synthetic drug ketamine.

Synthetic drugs is a broad category that includes any drug that is synthesized through chemical reactions in a laboratory, as opposed to plant-based drugs like marijuana or drugs refined from plants like cocaine and heroin. The most widely abused illegal synthetic drugs today are methamphetamines, also known as ice, and MDMA or ecstasy, among others.

“The chemicals were imported here to be used in a laboratory process with another precursor chemical to make the finished product, so it’s semi-finished. But when it was imported into our country, it’s in the form of the components of the drug rather than the drug itself. They take some of this substance, take some of that substance and combine it all into an illegal drug and then export it to the external market,” he said.

Citing an unidentified foreign source, Sar Kheng said the import of chemicals to produce the drugs was not being monitored at all by the police.

“I do not mention the name [of the foreigner] but he’s not a Khmer national. He suggested that it is being imported without any checks. We must not turn a blind eye. We must enforce the law because we are also a member of the UN. We have also become a member of international anti-drug organisations and have ratified international treaties that have now become Cambodian laws, so we must respect them,” he said.

“If drug producers are caught exporting from Cambodia, it would tarnish our reputation and give Cambodia an image as a drug dealer. And if it is distributed domestically, it is dangerous and there’s no magic cure for addiction. When you smoke it [and become addicted] there is no medicine to cure your addiction,” he said.

Sar Kheng added that currently nearly 40,000 inmates are being held in prisons and correctional centres across the country and 51 per cent of them are there for dealing drugs, while a good portion of the remaining 49 per cent are drug addicts, making the prospect of greater availability of drugs a very big risk for Cambodian society.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, said on December 28 that drugs destroy human resources and society. The import, production and trafficking of drugs remains a cause for concern and having specific mechanisms to combat it is necessary.

“Enforcing the law effectively for importers, dealers and traffickers of drugs with transparency and justice is the most important thing. Even if the offenders are rich or powerful, the law must be enforced without exceptions,” he said, adding that the import of chemicals must be restricted and monitored by working with neighbouring countries or in the region.