Drug abuse is a global challenge, and in some countries, such as during the leadership of former President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, a notably aggressive approach has been pursued.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its 2023 report on substance use, highlighted the continued expansion of illicit drug markets, while raising concerns about the safety and human rights implications of such approaches.

Globally, the use of drugs has surged, with more than 296 million individuals consuming such substances in 2021, reflecting a 23 per cent rise over the past decade. Moreover, the number of individuals grappling with substance use disorders has surged to 39.5 million, signifying a 45 per cent increase in the past 10 years.

Cambodia is encountering significant challenges in this area, with a noteworthy upswing in illegal drug-related incidents and apprehensions. The individuals involved in various aspects of drug production, distribution and use have consistently exceeded 10,000 per annum in recent years, many of them categorised as drug users.

In response to this pressing issue, the new government led by Prime Minister Hun Manet has prioritised the fight against drug-related concerns as a top agenda item. This initiative is an integral component of the recently introduced Pentagonal Strategy-Phase I.

A brief history

Early drug issue emerged following the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. It began to manifest itself in the 1980s, although narcotics had a less pervasive presence, particularly in rural areas during that period, according to Mak Chito, deputy National Police chief responsible for anti-drug efforts.

He told The Post that the first significant drug bust occurred in 1989, when the customs bureau in Koh Kong, a coastal province bordering Thailand, intercepted four tonnes of drugs being smuggled into the country. Ongoing concerns prompted the establishment of the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) in May 2009. Subsequently, the NACD has launched intensified campaigns against controlled substances since 2016.

One of the most significant drug-related cases in recent history occurred in December 2021, when police confiscated over 2.3 tonnes of narcotics – and approximately 84 tonnes of precursor chemicals used in their production – in Kampong Speu province.

Another substantial case occurred in July last year in Svay Rieng province, when authorities seized 1.8 tonnes of drugs and more than 276 tonnes of precursor chemicals during a series of raids. Both instances involved the operation of large facilities by foreigners. In response, authorities conducted inspections of various businesses to prevent any more such occurrences.

According to police reports, nearly 14 tonnes of narcotics were confiscated in 2022, encompassing nearly 6,400 drug-related incidents. These efforts resulted in the apprehension of more than 15,000 individuals, including users who were subsequently released, as they were considered victims.

Chito reported that in 2022, eight tonnes of drugs were incinerated. This figure has surged to nearly 14 tonnes this year, with the substances seized in the capital and 18 provinces.

“This five-tonne rise reflects heightened operations and the increasing effectiveness of the authorities,” he said.

During the first eight months of 2023, there have already been more than 5,4000 drug-related offences recorded, resulting in the confiscation in excess of 2.6 tonnes of illicit substances.

Authorities have been trying to curb the use of Cambodian soil as a transit point for drug trafficking, often originating from the region connecting Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, commonly referred to as the Golden Triangle.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, numerous cases involved traffickers who had ingested drugs for smuggling between countries, even at airports. However, it is crucial not to overlook the local market.

Local use of drugs

Meas Vyrith, secretary-general of the NACD, observed that the proliferation of drugs has extended significantly into rural areas, starting around 2012. He attributed this phenomenon in part to migrant workers, particularly those returning from Thailand, where they engaged in activities such as deep-sea fishing or illegal logging.

A pattern emerged in which such substances were used to enhance stamina, combat fatigue and enable individuals to work more strenuously. The declining prices of these substances have also contributed to their increased accessibility.

Hang Praseur, deputy director of the DTA Rehab Centre, a privately-operated drug rehabilitation facility in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, emphasised the influence of peer pressure in drug use. According to a survey conducted at the facility, eight out of 10 individuals admitted to being influenced by others to use drugs.

“People rarely initiate the use of these substances independently. They may succumb to the influence of negative companions over time. These acquaintances might tamper with food or beverages. Curiosity may entice some, while peer pressure coerces others. The consumption of alcohol can make them more daring, and individuals grappling with mental health issues might also be driven to experiment,” he explained.

He noted that the facility is currently treating 200 people in recovery, down from over 400 in 2019, attributing the decline to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic challenges.

Sok Pheak, a resident of Kampot province, expressed concerns about persisting problems in local communities, particularly among the youth. He emphasised the critical role of schools in delivering effective substance abuse education.

“I’ve taught my children about the dangers of drugs, but mere understanding isn’t sufficient. I believe schools can provide better guidance than I can. In certain villages, children frequently fail to heed their parents, underscoring the crucial role that schools play in this form of education,” he said.

The new government’s strategy

The fight against drug-related issues is among the top priorities in the initial phase of the government’s Pentagonal Strategy, with Manet issuing a September 12 sub-decree appointing new leadership of the NACD to address the problems.

Former National Police chief Neth Savoeun, now serving as deputy prime minister, chairs the authority, with three other deputy prime ministers serving as deputies: Interior minister Sar Sokha, justice minister Koeut Rith and defence minister Tea Seiha, while Senior Minister Prum Sokha assumes the role of standing deputy head.

The committee comprises 12 members, including incumbent National Police chief Sar Thet, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Vong Pisen, and ministers and officials from several ministries.

In a recent address to workers in Kampong Speu province, the prime minister acknowledged the challenges, noting that even major nations grapple with this issue.

“The objective of this campaign is to achieve an initial reduction in drug-related problems and ultimately their complete eradication. We encounter numerous challenges as this is a multifaceted issue. Many countries in the region, including major powers such as France and the US, have not yet achieved success in this undertaking,” he said.

He noted that even in Singapore, drug-related challenges have begun to emerge.

He explained that the appointment of four deputy prime ministers to lead the NACD is aimed at elevating its activities and ensuring the government’s commitment to combat drug-related issues becomes a reality.

Following the announcement of the NACD’s new leadership, Savoeun chaired its inaugural meeting on September 15. He underscored that the body’s new mandate is to intensify anti-drug campaigns for the betterment of the nation’s overall well-being.

Vyrith told The Post on September 27 that the new government will continue its efforts to remove drug abuse in the country through new initiatives.

He said the NACD’s focus will be on addressing previously identified shortcomings and negative aspects of its previous mission.

“Our actions must always be adaptable and responsive to the prevailing situation and the current state of drug-related issues. Our objective remains unchanged: to initially reduce and ultimately eliminate drug-related problems,” he added.

Currently, the NACD is engaged in formulating an action plan to respond to the issue. The new action plan assigns responsibility for implementation of the Pentagonal Strategy to national-level authorities.

At the sub-national level, local authorities are also tasked with developing their own action plans to confront this matter effectively and ensure that their actions are beneficial to the community.

Vyrith said officials from the NACD will provide support to sub-national authorities to carry out their action plans. This support will begin with guidance on the direction of their work and will be followed by assessments of all their activities.

“All of these measures are aimed at guaranteeing that their efforts yield positive outcomes for the nation, with a particular emphasis on ensuring the well-being of the people,” he added.

Annually, the nation observes the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by publicly disposing of apprehended contraband. This practice is aimed at ensuring transparency and discouraging involvement in illegal activities that can inflict harm on individuals and distress their families.

As local communities and educational institutions fulfil their roles, Cambodia is amplifying its efforts to combat the drug problem at all levels of governance.