Retired Anti-Drug Department official Meas Sovann has been working in drug rehabilitation for over 20 years, through his management of the Drug Addict Relief Association of Cambodia (DARAC), in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district.

Phnom Penh Post reporter Phak Seangly interviewed the DARAC executive director, 64, on the strategies he has employed to successfully treat thousands of addicts. Sovann noted that religious lessons and cooperation from families cannot be overlooked.

How long has DARAC been operating? Why did you decide to open it?

Sovann: We have been open for 20 years. I opened it while I was working as an official at the anti-drug department, in order to find means to tackle the issue of drug addicts in Cambodia. When I was working, I noticed the difficulties caused by a lack of dedicated rehabilitation centres. I asked permission from the government and my unit to open it. I did not do so for my personal business interests, but for my society and for all Cambodians. 

When we are gone, all that will be left is our children (he refers to the patients at the centre as his children), so we must leave only good things for the next generation.

How many addicts are sent to DARAC every year for treatment?

Meas Sovann, executive director of the Drug Addict Relief Association of Cambodia (DARAC). Supplied

Sovann: We could receive between over 200 to over 300 addicts per year. Most are young men under the age of 30, although 10 to 20 per cent are women. Patients arrive and some leave every day. We cannot accept more than this amount because it would be too hard to support them. Most of the funding we receive is from donations and sponsorship from the families of people we treat.

How long does it take to treat an addict?

Sovann: The duration of treatment depends on how long they have been a drug user and how the drugs have affected them. In serious cases, it can take a long time, but sometimes the process can be relatively fast. It is like treating a serious or minor case of any disease. 

We do not just provide treatment to them carelessly or without a sound methodology. We treat them professionally and ethically, using the lessons we have learned from the international organisations that have worked with the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD).     

So how long would it take to help someone with a minor addiction recover?

Sovann: In this case, it will generally take some three months for treatment. Then their condition will be improved, but we will need another three months to ensure they are fully recovered. But it is not good to provide treatment too quickly, as they will often relapse and need to return to us. We also need to collaborate closely with the families of our patients.

This is one of the most important aspects of releasing them. If he or she recovers and returns home, but no one takes care of them and protects them, or some family members or members of their communities discriminate against them, perhaps accusing them of being useless addicts, they may become depressed and turn to drugs.

In fact, they are nearly all good people, and follow our advice. It is important to teach them but it is also important to understand that when under the influence of drugs, they often become worthless, ridiculous people.

What about in a serious case, how long does it take for the treatment?

Sovann: Many long-term addicts lose part of their memories and do not know how to act like responsible members of society. It can take up to a year to treat them. During that time, they often seem to have lost their spark, or personality, but with the right treatment, we can help them to rediscover themselves.

What per cent of the addicts sent to DARAC recover?

Sovann: Only a small number of them fail to recover, usually because they are long-term users. Some of them know almost nothing and don’t know how to dress or feed themselves. 

Generally, if we have the cooperation of the family, we will succeed in treating them. Unfortunately, some families stop working with us after they leave the centre. These are the most difficult cases, because the families do not understand our techniques and do not trust that it is working.

Regular consultations are the best way to make both the addicts and their families understand the treatment and the need to follow our advice. If family members threaten, shout at or put pressure on addicts, they will relapse. 

It is important to understand the need to have a positive attitude. People who are addicted to drugs may be angry or frightening, but it is the drugs that make them act like this. Once their family members understand this, they will not be angry with them, but gently encourage them step by step to help them decide for themselves.

After leaving the centre, excess pressure could cause a relapse, so they should not be separated from their families or live alone. They need to keep busy, so they don’t get bored and think about drugs. Recovering addicts should also try to spend time around people who understand what they are going through and understand them.

What methods are used to rehabilitate patients?

Sovann: We apply several scientific methods of treatment for the rehabilitation process. Initially, we pay close attention to the physical effects of drugs on the body. They often suffer from a loss of muscle tissue and aches and pains, so we provide them with medicine to relieve these symptoms. We also encourage them to exercise for a few hours each day, although we don’t force them to do this, and we don’t encourage it when the weather is especially hot.

We also encourage them to embrace spiritual faith, as part of their rehabilitation. Religion is good and every country has it. No religion advises people to be bad, but good.

I instruct them to follow Buddhism. Why? Because I want them to think about good deeds and sin and what they have done so far for their parents or siblings. When they arrive at my centre, they cast off their bad deeds and begin to gain merit.

We offer them actual examples from society that they can understand and follow. Our work would be more difficult if we did not include Buddhist lessons. Every two weeks or so, monks are invited to deliver advice or involve them in religious ceremonies. Religious beliefs are never given up.

At the centre, they are not allowed to use bad language, fight, steal or have sex. They must behave morally and do good deeds. I have also prepared a shrine with Buddha statues for them to gather to learn the Dharma in a traditional way.

In addition, we organise programmes for them to enjoy, for example, singing, dancing or chanting poetry together.

What we do for them is done without any force or the threat of violence. We must only do good things that are in their best interests. This of course attracts them. 

It is also important that they stay in a pleasant environment. We provide comfortable places and facilities for them to play football or volleyball. I have designed the premises to be similar to a resort.

What are some of the challenges in the rehabilitation process?

Sovann: Yes, sure we have challenges, but when we organise things well, we do not have a lot of difficulties from our “children”. They are good people and listen to us when they are not under the influence of drugs. 

It can sometimes be a little difficult early in their treatment and our physicians need to pay close attention to them. A few months later, they are well and we understand each other. 

What is really important is that families are responsible for taking care of them after they leave the centre. Some family members still put pressure on them or threaten to abandon them if they do not listen to them. This makes them feel lonely. The patients’ families need to understand the techniques we employ and cooperate with the centre to take care of them. We cannot do it successfully on our own.

Are vocational skills included in the rehabilitation? 

Sovann:  Our facility offers the patients professional skills. We can train or teach them whatever they want to learn, in accordance with the capacity of our staff. If they want to learn music or sculpture skills, we will offer them, in addition to vehicle repair. Agricultural knowledge is also taught, so they can find employment after they are treated. If they already have a particular talent, they can review and hone it when they leave the centre.

Some of this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.