Misunderstanding of drug laws hamper Cambodian harm reduction

Research by Alliance Linking Organisation, KHANA, is published in the Journal of Harm Reduction. It explores how ambiguities in the understanding - and therefore interpretation – of Cambodian drug control laws leads to obstacles to accessing harm reduction initiatives for people who use drugs.

<p>Counciling by an ex-drug user to a new drug user about the dangers of drug use and alternatives.</p>

An ex-drug user providing counselling to a drug user about the dangers of drug use and its alternatives, at KHANA in Cambodia. ©Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Harm reduction interventions need to operate within drug control frameworks set by the country in question, especially in societies where punitive approaches towards drug users are well established, such as in Cambodia.

However, recently published research by Alliance Linking Organisation in Cambodia, KHANA, confirmed how understanding of drug-related laws by both law officials and people who use drugs themselves is highly ambiguous.

The qualitative research, conducted among law enforcement officials, people who use drugs, commune officers, and local non-governmental organisation field staff, found that there was a huge gap between what Drug Control Law (DCL) and Village/Commune Safety Policy (VCSP) say, and how law enforcement officers and people who use drugs understood them. This results in stark differences in how law enforcement officers implement these laws.

The impact of this on people who use drugs is that they are commonly denied access to harm reduction services, due to misconduct of authorities practicing the DCL and VCSP. Furthermore, this misconduct leads to increased social discrimination and physical abuses against people who use drugs. At the same time, a lack of understanding of the laws among people who use drugs prevents them from claiming their rights and accessing needed services.

To improve the quality and coverage of harm reduction services, law and policy articles related to criminalization against people who use drugs need to be changed so that they can be explicitly understood and properly executed. Alongside this, efforts need to be made to increase awareness and change the mind-set of government agencies - particularly law enforcement - and the public at large.

This research is of particular importance to the Alliance’s harm reduction and drug policy related advocacy. Unless we create functional models that really prioritise the health and rights of people who use drugs, and address the social norms and common practices rooted in the community and law enforcement, we won’t be able to make a difference to the lives of people who use drugs.

Read the research