Cambodia Facing Drug Epidemic

For underdeveloped countries like Cambodia, the explosive spread of technology and an easing of border restrictions and trade barriers have presented much-needed economic opportunities.

But the same economic climate that allows a garment factory in Cambodia to ship designer clothes to US consumers also allows well-organized bands of criminals to use Cambodia as a production site and transit route for international drug trade, experts say.

“Globalization is bringing numerous benefits, but it is also increasingly linked with the unrelenting growth of cross-border illegal activities,” said Sandro Calvani, of the UN’s drug control program, in a recent report on the “dark side of globalization.”

The sentiment is shared by the government which, up to now, has not found an effective method for dealing with the country’s burgeoning drug problem.

“In the future, criminals will seize the opportunity—while Cam­bodia still lacks the experience in controlling drugs and while other countries in the region are tightening their suppression measures—to use Cam­bodia as the main transit point in this region,” Deputy Prime Min­ister Sar Kheng said at a drug conference last week.

“Based on this situation,” he said, “the production and use of illicit drugs will certainly spread all over the country.”

For Cambodia, the current data is not encouraging. Amphet­amine production has spread from the Thai border toward the heart of the country, marijuana is grown in large-scale operations throughout the country and heroin is being trafficked through Cam­bodia from China, via Laos. Drug use—especially amphetamines—is also on the rise in Cambodia, drug experts say, particularly among sex workers, students and street children.

“It’s a time bomb,” said Bengt Juhlin, the deputy head of the UN’s drug control program in Southeast Asia. “It could burst at any minute.”

But while the stage is set for a serious drug problem, Juhlin said, “Cambodia is the only country [in the region] so far where we don’t have a drug epidemic.”

Representatives from Cam­bodia and five other Southeast Asian nations—China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos—met for two days in Phnom Penh last week to discuss strategies for controlling drug production, trafficking and use.

“The stronger ones are helping the weaker ones,” Juhlin said.

Cambodia, with its undertrained police force and lack of money, is one of the weaker.

The UNDCP will be spending more than $3 million over the next four years helping Cam­bodia build a system for combating drug production, trafficking and use, Juhlin said.

In the past, the UN drug program has focused mostly on other countries in the region, where there is more trafficking and production of hard-core drugs like heroin. But marijuana production in Cambodia is a special case, Juhlin said.

“We are concerned about it in Cambodia because it’s taken on such a large scale,” he said, adding that the country has become one of the world’s bigger marijuana exporters.

Juhlin said sources in Cam­bodia have told him more money is made through marijuana cultivation now than through illegal logging or gems. “Now we have to break the back of commercial producers, the syndicates with armed guards,” he said.

Organized criminal groups are not the only ones using Cam­bodia’s fields and forests as drug factories. In trying to fight drug production and trafficking, the government is sometimes sty­mied from within its own ranks. The two suspects in one of the government’s biggest marijuana busts of recent months are both police officials in Kampot.

In past years, the government focused primarily on intercepting drug shipments being transited through Cambodia. But as more drugs are produced and used in Cambodia, the focus must shift to eradicating home-grown drugs and treating Cambodian addicts, said Sar Kheng, who serves as chairman of the Nat­ional Auth­ority for Combating Drugs.

While the problems are daunting, Sar Kheng assured officials at the drug conference that Cam­bodia was taking aggressive steps to control the drug trade.

“Even though Cambodia does not have a death penalty law yet,” Sar Kheng said, “making amendments to the current drug legislation calling for heavier sentencing for drug criminals is being considered.”

Sar Kheng said the government also plans to implement a drug education program in schools and is considering using the influence of monks to dissuade Cambodians from drug use or production. In addition, he said, the government wants to establish rehabilitation centers where addicts can be treated and integrated back into society.

“We have the determination, both in spirit and energy, to successfully wage the war on drugs,” he said.

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