Government Gears Up for Push Against Drugs

The number of identified drug addicts in Cambodia has increased by nearly 30 percent this year compared to last year, spurring plans to crack down on drug traffickers and ramp up rehabilitation of users, according to a statement signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday.

The news came as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, both notorious and lauded for his violent war against drugs, was in Cambodia on a two-day state visit. Mr. Hun Sen has previously said that killing was not part of the solution here.

So far this year, police have acted on 4,191 cases of drug dealing and trafficking and have arrested 9,802 suspects with a total of over 175 kg of drugs, the prime minister’s statement said. Throughout the country, a total of 18,554 drug addicts were identified this year—up 4,242 from last year. (Mr. Duterte says that his country has some 4 million addicts.)

To prevent drug use from permeating the provinces, officials from the village level to ministries in Phnom Penh will launch a six-month crackdown beginning on January 1, the statement said.

“Cambodia has maintained good honor as a country that does not produce drugs nor is a source of drugs,” the statement said. “But it still has secret activities of people importing drugs from outside the country through passage checkpoints to the northeast and on flights.”

“This has caused an increase in drug use and concern of it spreading out from the city to the rural areas,” it added.

The plan will involve the National Authority for Combating Drugs, local officials and border police, along with the ministries of education, labor and vocational training, information, cults and religion, posts and telecommunication, and tourism, it said.

“We have done this in the past, but we did not yet do it together,” said deputy National Police chief Mok Chito. “But now, the drug issue is very complicated and we have seen a lot more drug users.”

Anti-drug messages will be sent out from each involved ministry, the statement said. Local officials are tasked with identifying community members who have previously suffered from drug addiction, encouraging them to get treatment and asking their landlords to “pay attention as well as sign a contract to cooperate and prevent drug use at their location.”

Additional training is to be provided by officials working on drug treatment and rehabilitation. Border officials will bolster communication with the international community, including Laos—from which a majority of methamphetamine enters the country—to identify and stop potential traffickers.

Men Kung, the spokesman for the government in Stung Treng province, which borders Laos, lauded the new plan, but said it would not be without challenges.

“We don’t know yet whether it will be effective,” he said. “In the past, we have faced many complications,” he said, adding that “complicated” border geography made protecting it a tricky feat.

David Harding, an independent consultant who has worked with NGOs on drug abuse prevention and treatment programs in Cambodia, said the new plan’s success will depend on the effectiveness of treatment and rehabilitation of users.

“The thing is, the amounts of money in these under-economies are so huge, and Cambodia’s border security is so poor, and Cambodia sits right below the golden triangle,” he said. “They should focus on demand reduction, because Cambodia is simply not equipped to stop trafficking.”

In order to address demand, however, the government would have to pour funds into improving its drug rehabilitation programs, which lack professionals equipped to address addicts’ needs in a “humane” way, he said. Eventually, former addicts would need help fully reintegrating into society—something the current system lacks, he added.

“It’s all very well working with people to withdraw from drugs, but that’s a very small part of the issue,” Mr. Harding said. “If you just get people clean, it ain’t gonna work.”

(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)

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