The government claims that Cambodia has no more than 10,000 drug users nationwide despite estimates from the U.N. that place the figure at more than four times that amount.
Ke Kim Yan, who chairs the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD), announced the government’s figure at the launch of the authority’s latest annual report last week.
Though a few thousand higher than the number of drug users the NACD has claimed in past years, the figure still falls tens of thousands short of the number of users estimated by the U.N.
“Estimates from an expert consensus group, led by UNAIDS, indicate that there are upwards of about 46,000 drug users in Cambodia, the vast majority being ATS [amphetamine type stimulant] users,” said Olivier Lermet, country manager for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
And given the regional trends in drug trafficking and production, Mr. Lermet said there was no reason to suspect the number had fallen—quite the opposite.
“The spillover effect of ATS produced in the reion…inevitably affects Cambodia. Cambodia has become a favored transit and storage location for international drug traffickers,” he said.
“Seeing the regional trends…there is no reason for consumption to decrease.”
On the contrary, he said ATS use was on the rise and spreading beyond its traditional base in the cities.
“Methamphetamine use continues to expand. Illicit drug use was previously concentrated primarily in urban areas but has expanded into rural areas in recent years, in particular in the provinces adjacent to [Laos] and Thailand.”
NACD deputy secretary-general Meas Vyrith on Monday conceded that the government has never carried out a comprehensive nationwide survey of drug use, but he stood by the authority’s “estimate” and dismissed the U.N.’s figures.
“There are only about 10,000,” he said. “The U.N.’s figures are not acceptable because there is no clear evidence. We want a report that is acceptable both to the NACD and civil society so that we can find solutions together.”
He said the final results of a recent survey targeting the 11 provinces where drug use was believed highest were due in a few weeks.
But David Harding, training coordinator for NGO Friends International, said a recent estimate of 20,000 drug users by the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs, carried out in collaboration with NGO Khana, was still far too low.
“It seems to be reflective of drug users who have been contacted through whatever means,” he said, whether by arrest, through the courts or sent to the government’s drug detention centers.
“But we’re talking about populations that are hidden because they’re so stigmatized,” he said. “So inevitably your results are going to be much less accurate.”
He said Friends’ partner NGO, Mith Samlanh, estimates that more than 40 percent of Phnom Penh’s roughly 20,000 street children alone are on drugs.
Underestimating the problem, Mr. Harding said, can lead to underestimating the necessary response.
“If estimates are too low, then the prevention measures are going to be tailored to those low numbers…then the response could be inadequate,” he said.
Mr. Harding stressed that the risks could be particularly dangerous with those who inject their drugs with needles, given their high rate of HIV infection.
The government has come under much criticism from both the U.N. and NGOs for the drug detention centers where it currently sends roughly 1,000 drug users a year—according to the NACD—for doing nothing to treat their addictions and ending up with a nearly 100 percent relapse rate.
In a scathing 2010 report endorsed by local U.N. officials, Human Rights Watch also accused the centers of beating and sexually abusing many of their charges.
Since early 2012, the UNODC has been working with the government to set up and expand a community-based drug treatment program in the northern province of Banteay Meanchey where trained staff makes efforts to counsel users as an alternative to the centers.
Mr. Lermet called the program a step in the right direction.