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Drug policy in Kingdom sees mixed success

Tom Starkey / Khmer Times Share:
Police with a suspect and seized drugs. Fresh News

If you look at a newspaper on any given day in Cambodia, you will usually see an arrest or detainment taking place for drug possession, use or trafficking.

It is not that Cambodia has a significantly worse drug problem than other countries in Asean, but its geographical location makes it something of a crossroads through which huge quantities of drugs pass.

This results in a triple effect for the nation. Not only does the country have to deal with large transnational criminal networks which transport the drugs, but communities lie vulnerable to either the temptation to make quick money by assisting with transportation or become users due to the abundant availability of narcotics.

All-time highs

In response, the country has embarked on significant anti-drug campaigns that since 2017 have seen year-on- year surges in arrests.

As police look to appease targets and seniors amid the anti-drug campaigns within the country, a prevalent practice to catch people involved with drugs has emerged which involves fabricating an event or ‘set up’, between undercover agents and suspected criminals, with the purpose of witnessing the breaking of the law resulting in an evidence-based arrest.

Between January and May alone, according to a recent Ministry of Interior anti-drug department report, authorities arrested 8,864 drug-related suspects in 4,490 cases, up 28 percent and 37 percent respectively compared to the same period last year.

However, Deputy Police Chief General Mok Chito insists that police must use informers to keep control on the drugs trade.

“We use informers in around 70 percent of all our cases. It allows us to keep control. Typically our informers will have been arrested before for drug charges and then they cooperate with us,” he said.

“I believe it is a good way to catch criminals. We cannot know the people or suspects that they know. Also, they have the trust of criminals, which brings us to the perpetrators.  We catch many, many criminals this way.”

Seized drugs are collected for burning in Koh Pich. KT/Siv Channa

Quality over quantity

Yet trafficking and drug use remain prevalent, as many of these arrests usually lead to the detainment of drug users and small time dealers, yielding relatively small seizures of drugs.

Despite a public burning of 500 kilogrammes of drugs, reported by the Khmer Times on July 26, it is hardly due to make a dent or be a deterrent for criminals in an industry worth up to an estimated $61.4 billion across Southeast Asia annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOCD).

Meanwhile, rising arrests are also resulting in swelling jail populations.

As Union of Catholic Asian News reported in 2019: “Human rights organisations and other NGOs say the crackdown on drugs has lead to serious problems in Cambodia’s prisons”.

“Before the anti-drug campaign, prisons were already overcrowded and faced a lack of drinking water, poor hygiene and limited access to health care.”

“Locking up thousands of drug users is only making the problems worse, activists say, while drug-related treatment is hardly available behind bars,” the UCAnews report added.

A report by Amnesty International (AI) said that since 2017, the number of prisoners has skyrocketed by 78 percent with nearly 40,000 people incarcerated in a country where prisons are reported to have a total capacity of just over 26,500.

It also added that of the total number of women jailed in Cambodia, 73 percent are detained for alleged drug offences.

In Cambodia, babies and toddlers can be kept with their mothers behind bars up until the age of three, meaning some toddlers have lived their whole lives in prison with imprisoned mothers.

Furthermore, the number of arrests being made could be having a counter-productive effect outside of jails. As increasing numbers of undercover police officers venture out to communities looking to buy drugs to catch sellers, the operation could be in danger of creating the illusion of a higher demand in arrest hot spots.

Moreover, the subsequent seizures of narcotics create a shortage of drugs, which suppliers far up the chain will be more than happy to fill, and of street corner sellers, likely to be the next desperate local who needs money to eat.



A report by the International Drug Policy Consortium found that in criminalised contexts, abuses perpetrated by law enforcement personnel against people who use drugs are commonplace.

These abuses include extortion and entrapment, violence and harassment. Frequent police abuse drive people who use drugs away from life-saving health and social care services.

Specifically in Cambodia, the AI report found the anti-drug campaign has perpetuated human rights abuses, with allegations that suspected drug users have been tortured, beaten, and denied their legal rights.

“Interviewees said corruption was rife, ensuring that only the poor ended up bearing the brunt of anti-drug efforts,” the report said.

The stigma attached to drugs, the IDPC report found, was “based on punitive legal frameworks being premised on the notion that drug use represents a ‘social evil’ or a ‘moral failing’, contributing to the threat posed by drug markets to the ‘social fabric of nations’ and ‘stability of states’, instead of being grounded on a scientific understanding about drugs, drug use and drug dependence.”

The report said this has contributed to high levels of stigma and discrimination of drug users, deterring people who use drugs from accessing essential health and social services.


Health Issues

“Criminalisation of people who use drugs, as well as legal restrictions on distribution of needles and syringes, have fuelled the escalating HIV epidemic. In contexts where drug use is criminalised and stigmatised, people who use drugs are deterred from accessing the health services they may need and are more likely to use drugs in unsafe environments,” the report found.

“It also deters people from accessing opioid substitution therapy and new psychoactive substances, harm reduction interventions that play a critical role in the prevention of HIV and other blood-borne viruses,” it said.

Three suspects are arrested after being found in possession of more than 14 kilogrammes of drugs. Police

Legality in ‘caught’

The use of undercover police officers in sting operations has not only come under fire for its effectiveness at impacting on high level organised crime, but also its legal validity.

Entrapment is defined as the act of causing someone to do something they would not usually do, by tricking them, and is based around two common factors.

The first argument for entrapment comes from the claim of improper inducement, where the defendant can claim the authorities were involved and induced the defendant to commit the crime.

Secondly, is the lack of predisposition, meaning the defendant would not have committed the crime but for the authorities’ inducement.

Sherman versus the United States, was a famous entrapment court case which sent waves through the legal world. The case against Sherman, who was a recovering drug addict, was unanimously overturned due to repeated soliciting of the accused to sell drugs, to which he finally gave in and was then subsequently arrested.

Although entrapment has never been used as a legal defence in Cambodia, as the Kingdom moves to progress its laws and improve its human rights record, it cannot turn a blind eye to potential cases of entrapment, which have the potential to discredit and corrupt police work, especially amid top-down pressure from anti-drug campaigns.

Sok Sam Oeun, formerly the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project against entrapment agrees, saying: “The authority itself has the duty to prevent crime, rather than initiate it.”

“When police find a suspect or believe someone is committing a crime, they should not wait and let them do it, they should prevent the crime,” he said.

Sam Oeun also said it faces putting police and people who cooperate with authorities in danger.

“The undercover police officers’ job is not easy, if they are found out they face attacks from gangs or their community.”



Olivier Lermet from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Phnom Penh told The Diplomat that acknowledging the widespread nature and multidimensional nature of the drug epidemic in Cambodia was key.

“There are a few key trends at play. One, there is a need for cooperation across its borders as drugs are an international problem.”

This would strengthen Cambodia’s ability to control the import of illicit substances coming into the country in the first place, as evidenced by the fall in drug seizures since borders were closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Also,” he said, “there needs to be a growing awareness of the need to treat those struggling with addiction compassionately and push initiatives such as The Community Based Treatment programme, which aims to reduce stigma and develop sustainable drug treatment alternatives to rehabilitate users rather than lock them away, likely just postponing their addictions.”

The IDPC report says that the complexity surrounding the issue of drugs makes implementation of more progressive drug laws difficult in the region.

“Evidence from countries in Asia and around the world demonstrates that governments have clearly failed to achieve drug-free goals.”

The IDPC report also showed countries that impose severe penalties for possession and consumption of drugs are no more likely to deter drug use than countries that impose less severe sanctions.

“Asian countries are likely to face significant implementation challenges in transitioning from criminalisation to a more robust public health approach (including political pressure to retain a hard-line, zero-tolerance approach to drugs), therefore, public support for new policy directions will be critical,” it said.

“Efforts would be required to dispel fears that decriminalisation will lead to a rapid escalation of drug use and crime.”

“This may require engaging the media to assist in educating the community about the harms caused by criminalisation and the public health and security benefits of decriminalisation as demonstrated by global experience.”

NGOs and the Cambodian government have embarked on a series of projects to aid a more rounded approach to drug resolutions. However, as the issue prevails so does a call for a solution.

Indeed, as Cambodia grapples with overpopulated jails, rising drug-related arrests and an increasingly vulnerable population amid COVID-19, progressive drug laws could offer some welcome relief on already stretched sectors.



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