Linda is like many of the hundreds of prostitutes who live and work in Tuol Kok district. For most of the day, she stands in the doorway of her roadside brothel, waving at potential customers driving by on their motorcycles.
It is, of course, not the most fulfilling way to spend a day. But when Linda smokes the little pills-the way her co-workers showed her-she can forget her life as a prostitute for just a little while.
“We smoke for fun-it makes us happy,” she said. “You’re not afraid of anyone when you’ve been smoking.”
Linda is a methamphetamine addict-one of a group which grew “exponentially” in Cambodia last year, according to Graham Shaw, program officer for the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.
Not only sex workers use the drug. A study conducted by a group of local NGOs in June asked 1,395 people in 12 provinces about their drug-taking habits. Thirty percent admitted to “abuse” of methamphetamines, according to the study.
Known widely as yaba, yama, or just ma, it is used by groups as diverse as garment factory workers, soldiers, manual laborers and street children.
“The problem has reached levels which are quite horrific, especially amongst young people,” Shaw said.
Teen-age boys living in cities or near the Thai border are some of the heaviest users. “Middle-class teen-agers who get pocket money from their parents are spending it on methamphetamines,” Shaw said.
The UNODCCP is collecting data from a survey of high school students in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Sihanoukville about methamphetamines. The results are not yet available, but UNODCCP National Program Officer Sovann Tith said the study was conducted because “we know for certain that drugs are present in schools.”
“We began by looking at the 14 to 17 age group, but in 80 percent of the schools we visited, the principal advised us that the problem was worst among kids aged 11 to 13,” he said.
Chin Ratha, 14, has been using ‘yama’ for a year. He says “99 out of 100 students smoke ‘ma’ at Wat Phnom school” in Phnom Penh, where he used to study. His claims are exaggerated, but give an idea of how commonplace the drug seems to many city school-children.
Tin Pra Soeur, deputy chief of Phnom Penh’s Anti-Drug Bureau, agrees. “This semester the yama problem is worse than last year,” he said. “The addicts we see are mostly teen-age boys.”
Taking yama is an enticing option for teen-agers with time on their hands and a few dollars to spend. In a society where, until recently, the change from child to husband, wife and parent was almost instant, the very idea of a teen-ager is new. There is little for young Cambodians to do together, and few
places to socialize, and boredom is key in leading young people to try out new kinds of stimulation, Shaw said.
The effects of methamphetamines also have a special appeal for young people, says David Harding, a technical adviser at Mith Samlanh/Friends NGO who specializes in the field of drug abuse.
“It boosts your self-confidence, makes you feel strong. It feeds on the anxieties young people have about their self-image,” he said.
“When you smoke ma, other people seem as weak and small as a finger or a little bird,” said Seng Makara, 17, who started using methamphetamines when he dropped out of school two years ago.
His friend Chin Ratha described some of ma’s other affects: “Yama can make you more scared or more courageous, depending on your personality,” he explained.
“When I smoke just one or two pills, it makes me anxious. But when you smoke a lot, you see ghosts and your knees shudder,” he said “Your heart beats fast and you never get hungry, even if the food comes from heaven. You only want to smoke more.”
Methamphetamines are powerfully addictive. Tolerance grows fast, and the dose needed to get high grows with it.
This often leads to a new method of taking the drug: Most users begin by smoking pills in a home-made foil pipe, but “moving from smoking or sniffing yama to injecting is a logical progression,” as the addict’s need for a better high intensifies, Shaw said.
“Based on what I’ve seen happen in other countries, I’d say many of these young yama users will progress onto using stronger drugs,” such as heroin, he said.
A Friends/Mith Samlanh survey of Phnom Penh’s street children, conducted between Jan 2001 and Feb 2002 and due to be published in October, found 52 percent of those questioned regularly used drugs. Of these, 13 percent used methamphetamines; most were males aged 19 to 20.
The survey also found 13 percent of those using drugs were introduced to them by force-these, said Harding, are most likely young people involved in prostitution. “Brothel-owners and pimps are introducing workers to methamphetamines as a means of controlling them,” he said.
Yama’s effects are well-suited to the sex industry, too. “Sex-workers are using it to enhance their performance, and often to deaden their senses,” Shaw said.
Observers contend that a frightening level of ignorance among methamphetamine users is one of the biggest obstacles to dealing with the problem.
But because the problem has escalated so quickly here, there are few cautionary examples of people suffering addiction’s full consequences.
The effects of long-term abuse are little known, so the drug does not yet have the stigma of other ‘hard’ drugs. Many users think methamphetamines are just strong vitamins-a myth that dealers are keen to perpetuate.
A similar level of ignorance among law-enforcers is also cause for serious concern, observers say. For the first time, authorities are being confronted with widespread drug addiction, and are finding that the infrastructure to deal with the problem simply does not exist.
“There are basically no facilities for treating drug addicts in Cambodia,” Shaw said. “Nobody knows how to deal with the problem.”
Tin Pra Soeur admits his team is poorly equipped to deal with drug addiction on this scale.
“The police cannot deal with the yama problem properly, because we do not have the space to keep the dealers and addicts, or the resources to educate them,” he said. “If we had somewhere to keep addicts, within three or four months they would be ‘clean.’ But right now, we are arresting the same people again and again.”
Tin Pra Soeur also sees a recent increase in petty crime as directly related to the ‘yama’ problem. “Pickpocketing and bag-snatching have increased,” he said, “because young people taking yama need money and feel brave enough to do anything.”
Another, unexpected problem has cropped up within the Anti-Drug Bureau itself: “Drug police are becoming yama addicts themselves,” Tin Pra Soeur said. “Some have even entered the monkhood to escape their addiction.”
The UNODCCP is now working with the National Authority For Combating Drugs to develop the ways law enforcement and health services deal with methamphetamine users, Shaw said.
Meanwhile Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara is taking a different approach-one that some observers find ominous. He plans to set up a center for young drug users outside Phnom Penh, where he hopes education and medical care will cure their addiction and set them back on track for a responsible adulthood.
“We can’t send drug users who are under 18 to jail. They need to be educated,” Chea Sophara said.
The center is still in the planning stages, but because neither admission nor discharge from the facility would be voluntary, the potential for the center to become a dumping ground for the city’s less picturesque residents seems great.
Methamphetamine use has exploded far faster in Cambodia than in neighboring countries-another reason for the lack of preparedness among law enforcement and health services.
“In Thailand, the incidence of yama use amongst young people grew from zero percent to 40 percent between 1995 and 2000,” Shaw said. “I’d say that same growth has happened in Cambodia’s urban areas in about two years.”
Cambodia’s location makes it an ideal conduit for drugs flowing south through the region. The proximity of the Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand, Burma and Laos-a major source of narcotics in Asia-means a steady stream passes through Cambodia on its way to Sihanoukville, known as one of the region’s most porous seaports.
Cross-border trafficking, particularly with Thailand, is unchecked and large scale, according to Shaw. And now Cambodians, growing wise to potential profits, are producing methamphetamines themselves, Shaw said.
“It’s still low quality stuff,” he acknowledged “But the problem with low quality is it comes with a low price.”
There is wholesome money to be made from this unwholesome trade-one yama tablet costs $0.01 to make, but sells for more than a dollar. Cracking
down on manufacturing is hard, as the chemicals that make up methamphetamines are also used to produce legitimate pharmaceutical drugs, and are legal.
The outlook for a nation whose schoolchildren are using methamphetamines is grim. “Economic development, governmental reform, foreign aid: the progress that all of these bring will be totally undermined if Cambodia’s young generation are growing up addicted to drugs,” Shaw said.
This argument is lost on Chin Ratha; he’s just worried about finding enough money for his next smoke. And even his family-traditionally the most powerful unit in Cambodian society-can’t hold him back. “Our parents blame us for using ‘ma,'” he said, “But they can’t stop us.”