At the end of Cambodia’s six-month anti-drug campaign, tension between the government and organizations that advocate on behalf of drug users was on full display this week.
While an NGO researcher yesterday said there was a wide gap between the nation’s drug control law, which guarantees an addict’s right to rehabilitation, and official enforcement of its provisions, anti-drug authorities said they were not to blame for arrests or the limited access to treatment services.
Officials, advocates and others who play a role in how Cambodia treats drug users gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday for a discussion in which attendees debated how authorities and NGOs can better support rather than punish users.
Representatives of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, the Health Ministry, harm-reduction NGOs and drug users themselves also exchanged views—and some critiques—about the campaign, during which more than 9,600 people were arrested for drug-related crimes, including about 4,400 alleged users, as of Thursday, according to figures from the drug authority. Dealers and traffickers account for most of the rest.
Neak Yuthea, deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, speaks at a drug policy forum on Thursday in Phnom Penh. (Khana)“We must think of the health,” said Tout Sovannary, research manager for Khana, an NGO that supports HIV prevention and drug treatment programs, “rather than punish people” by jailing them.
Mr. Sovannary presented a study published last week in Harm Reduction Journal that concluded that “a large gap in the understanding and application” of the Law on Drug Control exists among law enforcement officers, drug users and NGO staff who work with users. Less than 40 people from these groups were selected to be surveyed in focus groups and interviews in Phnom Penh in 2015.
Limited knowledge of the drug law paired with high levels of social stigma and ill treatment of users were preventing them from “claiming their rights” and “accessing needed health and non-health services,” according to the study by researchers from Khana, Royal University of Phnom Penh and Touro University California’s public health program.
The study attributed the discrepancy between drug laws and community safety policies and how authorities enforce them to the government’s slow adoption of harm-reduction strategies and lack of training and awareness by law enforcement officials, among other factors.
The drug law says the government should make rehabilitation treatment and services that reduce possible harm resulting from drug abuse, like needle-exchange and methadone programs, available to addicts without discrimination.
Drug users cannot be compelled into rehabilitation treatment unless they are found to be in a “state of severe drug dependence” and a threat to themselves or others, or the mandatory treatment is court-ordered with the consultation of a medical professional.
“The law is clear. The policy is clear,” Mr. Sovannary, one of the study’s authors, said yesterday. Still, he said, “there’s a huge gap between the law and the implementation of the law,” citing one police officer who told those conducting the survey that needle-exchange programs encouraged users to continue using and other people to start using drugs.
Sou Sochenda, a manager at NGO Khana, speaks at a drug policy forum on Thursday in Phnom Penh. (Khana)Neak Yuthea, the drug authority’s deputy secretary-general, said the government and the law recognized drug users as “victims” who had the right to choose treatment over prison if they were arrested.
“Drug users who didn’t commit any other crimes are not sent to prison,” Lieutenant General Yuthea said, adding that if arrested users committed other offenses, such as dealing or trafficking drugs or robbery, they would be prosecuted.
“They were not sent to the prison because they had used drugs,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Yuthea also said not all police officers were well versed in the drug law.
“To make all the law enforcement officers well-aware of the Law on Drug Control is hard work, because not all law enforcement officers are anti-drug officers,” he said.
Echoing his superiors’ statements on Monday, in which leaders from the drug authority described the government’s anti-drug campaign, which launched in January, a success, Mr. Yuthea said the crackdown was “special” as there had been “no human rights violations, blood or killing.”
Officials would hold a meeting on Monday to determine whether the campaign would continue, he added.
NGO representatives were steadfast in their opposition to anti-drug policies that emphasize law enforcement over health measures.
“Harm reduction services is not a priority for intervention in the community,” Khana’s Mr. Sovannary said. “Punishment is not a long-term solution.”
While acknowledging that some authorities could use “more education” about the benefits of harm-reduction programs, Dr. Chhum Vannarith, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Health, appealed to officials and service providers to work together to support users and fight drug abuse.
“The drug user needs the clean needle to prevent disease,” he said. “We can show the benefits of the program.”

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