Cambodia has a serious problem with drug addiction and trafficking, and last Friday, the National Assembly passed a big new drug law with a 79-1 majority mandating stricter punishments for both users and traffickers.

Although tougher possession penalties and longer sentences for the possession of drugs such as methamphetamine, morphine, and cocaine are part of the law, infinitely more worrisome is the little-debated measure’s hardline new approach towards the treatment of addicts.

The new law, which has been vocally opposed by NGOs, will allow supposed drug addicts to be forcibly detained inside drug rehab facilities from 6 to 24 months if they are considered to be, according to the Cambodia Daily article on the subject, “capable of harming themselves or a danger to society” – a rather imprecise distinction that can be made by police and prosecutors.

Addicts will, in theory, have the right to file a complaint and appeal what is essentially a prison sentence—though with Cambodia’s dodgy legal track record, I find it unlikely such complaints, unaccompanied by a bribe or some handy personal connections, will get far.

Rehab in Cambodia is nothing like rehab in the West.  Cambodia’s drug rehab centers are grim, abusive places, much closer to poorly-run prisons than places of healing— as evidenced by a January 2010 Human Rights Watch report entitled “Skin on the Cable.”  The sweeping report collected horrifying accounts of abuses in these centers, including rape, physical beatings, forced blood donations, and lack of access to food.

Addicts reported that drug “treatment” at the centers takes the form of forced military style drills, often involving painful, brutal exercises, while “vocational” training looks more like forced labor, benefitting rehab center supervisors more than addicts themselves.

Most disturbingly, the report found that many children and mentally ill people are detained at these centers alongside the regular population, and are subjected to the same abusive, sadistic treatment as the general population.

Physical punishments reported at the centers included shocks with electrical batons, whipping with electrical wire, and being chained and forced to stand out in the hot Cambodian sun. Those detained by police on drug charges—often without a warrant or reasonable cause for arrest—reported being brutally tortured into confessing where they acquired the substances.

Male inmates told of being forced to perform sexual acts on prison guards, while female inmates reported common and often-repeated gang-rapes. Some women caught with drugs on the street are forced to have sex with police officers in exchange for release.

Some detainees reported being coerced into giving blood at the centers, either by threats, the promise of release, or in some cases, outright force. It’s not particularly hard to figure out that taking blood from drug addicts puts the entire Cambodian population at an elevated risk of HIV infection.

Cambodia’s blood screening protocols are dodgy at best: according to 2008 data, 3 percent of units weren’t “screened in a timely manner.”

A 2006 UNAIDS report found that  “Coverage of blood screening is variable and there are no set standards or procedures for ensuring quality.”

Although Cambodia’s hospitals are lamentably low on blood, it is absolute insanity to force the nation’s most at-risk for HIV population to donate blood to the general population.

People detained in these “rehab” centers almost always turn back to drugs after release, according to UN officials—not surprising, given the horrifying mental and physical abuses drug addicts suffer during their supposed shot at “fixing” themselves.

The government seems profoundly disinterested in creating or supporting voluntary drug rehab centers, which most experts say work far better than coerced methods, says the Cambodia Daily.

According to a report released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2010,  the Cambodian government resisted implementing a $1.1 million UN program that would show how effective voluntary drug treatment can be.  As evidenced by their near-unanimous vote on the measure, National Assembly members appear singularly unconcerned that  this new drug measure, plain and simple, codifies illegal, arbitrary detention into law.

This new law  punishes addicts without combating the underlying issues of grinding poverty, financial inequality and insecurity, and lack of access to education that lead some to turn to drugs—and may even make Cambodia’s drug addiction problem worse, as mentally and physically abused inmates turn back to drugs in an effort to emotionally recover from a stint in “rehab.”

This is not the “progress” that Cambodia repeatedly claims it is making in its attempt to become a modern, wealthy nation, and such laws will do nothing whatsoever to combat drug addiction.

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