Six Months On, Government Bills Anti-Drug Campaign a Success

The leaders of the country’s anti-drug authority on Monday declared the government’s nearly six-month campaign to combat illegal drugs a success, although an NGO said the government’s efforts—which have included ramped-up arrests for alleged drug crimes—had made users more fearful of seeking treatment.

Meas Vyrith, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said the number of all reported crimes had decreased by about 20 percent during the first six months of this year compared to the same time period last year.

Authorities burn confiscated drugs during a ceremony to mark this year’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich on Monday. (Reuters)

“Within these six months, we managed to get good results with support from the people and involvement from the public as well as non-governmental organizations,” Mr. Vyrith said during an event on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich to mark this year’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

As of Sunday, more than 9,400 people had been arrested for drug-related crimes since January 1, with slightly more than 5,000 suspected of distributing drugs, Mr. Vyrith said during an interview later on Monday. In all of last year, about 9,800 people were arrested for alleged drug crimes.

Last week, Huy Hoeun, deputy director of the general department of prisons, said the drug crackdown had caused Cambodia’s prison population to jump by 20 percent, with inmates being transferred to different provinces to tackle overcrowding. He said there were currently 25,000 inmates in 27 prisons across the country and that the influx of inmates was mostly due to the government’s anti-drug campaign.

“We transfer inmates every two or three months, otherwise it’s overcrowded,” he said at the time.

On Monday, to mark the anti-drug day, authorities lit a pile of more than 126 kg of confiscated drugs, including crystal methamphetamine, heroin and ecstasy, with a market value of about $4 million. The burning mirrored similar displays on Monday in Burma, where an estimated $385 million worth of drugs was burned in three official ceremonies, and Thailand, where authorities torched about $589 million worth of drugs to mark the day, The Telegraph reported.

At the Phnom Penh ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan, the anti-drug authority’s chairman, praised officials for their crackdown on Trapaing Chhouk village in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district—long known as a hotspot of drug use and dealing.

Authorities arrested dozens of people and knocked down dwellings in the notorious slum in February.

Still, Mr. Kim Yan said combating drugs, which includes rehabilitation, was a complicated problem that required more involvement from various parties.

“It requires the involvement and support from parents, communities, local authorities, non-governmental organizations” and the private sector, he said.

Arrests and detention of those who use drugs in prison or rehabilitation centers should not be the only measures of success, said Sou Sochenda, a manager at Khana, an NGO that supports voluntary drug treatment, in an email on Monday.

Other indicators of effectively combating drugs might include increases in the employment rates of users, in the number of people reconnected with their families and in the number of people accessing treatment and harm reduction services, she said.

“These indicators eventually contribute to decreases in drug-related crimes and healthier people and healthier communities,” she said.

If the current crackdown continued, the lives of users would only worsen, Ms. Sochenda said.

“People will keep hiding [from police] and do not come for education, harm reduction services such as clean needles and syringes, and treatment,” she said.

Still, she said, the government, including the anti-drug authority and the Health Ministry’s department of mental health and substance abuse, were moving in the right direction by drafting a standard procedure for community-based treatment.

Mr. Vyrith said the government intended to move toward this model, first adopted in 2009 and now available at 177 sites across the country.

“In our heart, we want to treat drug addiction at the community-based [level] in order to reduce temporary [rehabilitation] centers,” he said.

Mr. Vyrith also said the government should continue the anti-drug campaign for longer than its initial mandate.

“The period of six months is short,” he said. “It has not been fully effective, but we have received positive results.”

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