Dy first tried heroin when he was about 15, when a friend pressured him to do it. “He said, ‘You’ll feel good all over your body,’” Dy recounted in a recent interview.
Now 22 years old, Dy has been addicted ever since and has been unable to quit. He used to steal to feed his habit, but now scavenges recyclable goods to pay for the roughly $2.50 he spends each day on drugs.
“It’s kind of like alcohol. When I’m high, my body feels good. Sometimes I just walk around and look for a place to sleep,” said Dy, who did not want his family name used. “When I try to quit or when I don’t have it, I just sit there. My nose gets runny, my body twitches, my muscles ache. I get diarrhea. I can’t eat any food or drink water.”
But Dy and many other addicts in Cambodia may soon get some help in kicking their habits. The Ministry of Health is planning to open a methadone maintenance program next year at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said Sann Sary, municipal director of the Ministry of Health’s hospital department.
The clinic will offer a treatment option for those addicted to opiates that is not yet available in Cambodia.
The clinic is six months to a year from being open, said Graham Shaw, technical officer at the World Health Organization, which is helping Cambodia in the effort.
“The next step now is deciding how the program will be managed,” Shaw said.
The program will start with an initial 50 to 100 patients, who will be given maintenance doses of methadone, a drug that helps addicts of opiates live more normal lives, by easing drug withdrawal symptoms and cravings. However, methadone is not effective for treating addictions to other, more popular drugs, such as methamphetamines.
Sann Sary said the methadone clinic would help heroin addicts survive and be good for the city. “If we have a methadone clinic, our country will decrease crime,” he said. “But we need the cooperation from [addicts’] parents.”
“It’ll completely change lives for the better,” Shaw said, agreeing that it will also reduce crime.
“People won’t be stealing to pay for their addiction. It’ll be a major step forward,” he said.
The clinic will also provide referral and medical services, Shaw said, adding: “It’ll be a one-stop shop for heroin users.”
The program will cost about $150,000 to $200,000 to run in the first two years, Shaw said, with funding coming from the Swedish government.
Holly Bradford, adviser at the local NGO Korsang, which does outreach to drug users, said that there are about 1,050 injecting drug users registered with her group in Phnom Penh. Korsang will provide transportation to the planned clinic each day, Bradford said, and educate users about the program.
“To me, methadone is not the answer, but it’s part of the continuum of treatment options needed that isn’t available here,” she said. “Everyone wants [methadone].”
But, Bradford said, once the program is up and running, a whole host of other services will be needed, such as transitional housing and job training programs, to help the recovering addicts lead more productive lives.
Dy said that he would welcome the help in kicking his addiction. “If I quit, I’d like to get a job with Korsang,” he said.
Another addict, a 25-year-old man who asked that his name not be used, said that he’d also like to quit using heroin. He quit once, when he was caught up in a sweep of drug addicts and forced to detox.
“It was hard,” he said. “I kept getting hot and cold, my nose was runny, I had diarrhea, I didn’t eat for half a month. When my appetite came back, I ate more than usual. I was happy because the drug wasn’t in my body.”
He stayed off the drugs for a little more than a year, but started again, when a friend offered it to him.
He said he liked his life better when he was off drugs. “When I am using, I’m stressed out about where I’m going to get my next fix. But when I was clean, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t have a need for it.”
Still, the man said he’d rather quit without the help of methadone. “I want to quit on my own. It’s important because when you quit on your own, you don’t need the medicine,” he said.