Drug Addiction and Cambodia’s Elite and Middle Class
Drug addiction in Cambodia has been present for a very long time. Over the last decade drug use, especially methamphetamine has been on a significant rise. Cambodia went through decades of civil war and has only emerged from it in the late 1990’s. Although the country is becoming one of the top economies in South East Asia, it is trying to cope with the heavy amount of drug use caused by how easy it is to get through borders, the expanding youth population, the domestic drug industry, and the business elite that are involved in gang-like activities.
The United Nations estimates that there are nearly half a million drug users in Cambodia. Heavily consumed drugs include heroin, marijuana, and inhalants; however, the drug of choice is methamphetamine or ‘ice’. A student from a popular university in Cambodia said that nearly 65% of students take meth on a regular basis. She said that it was seen as being “…cool, easy to access, and then they can’t stop”. Another student said “Five years ago it was mainly gangs – now everyone does it.” An administrator in a semi-private rehabilitation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia stated that just under half of their patients are students, another third are right out of school, and the remainder are homeless people, sex workers, and street children who have been placed there by authorities.
Children of Cambodia’s elite and middle class are described as being spoiled and constantly getting into trouble with the law. Some spend over 1000 USD of their parent’s money on drugs each month. This is considered to be an outstanding amount of money considering that most of the country lives on a dollar per day. While many experts suggest Cambodia has no middle class, one of the country’s leading directors believes that the middle class makes up for 5-10% of the population. For the Cambodian people that are a part of this middle class, the constant flow of money is not only enticing, but dangerous.
It is well known that these elite or middle class teens will purchase the easy to access drugs and then rent rooms in guest houses and hotels to hold a party. Although the Cambodian government told the guesthouse and hotel owners throughout Cambodia that they would be shut down if they continued to allow these parties, they still happen on a daily basis and meth use is still increasing. An expert working on organized crime in Cambodia described meth use as a “cancer eating the Cambodian family and culture from the inside out,” He said that because of the extreme paranoia associated with meth and the high level of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in the country, resulting from the Khmer Rouge and civil war era, has created a “dangerous brew” causing individuals to go from being normal to completely the opposite in a matter of seconds. Some individuals will go crazy, others get violent, and some will have a complete breakdown.
Social and Economic Problems
The availability of drugs aside, many professionals believe that drug use amongst the Cambodian elite and new middle class youth can be attributed to a change in culture. Nowadays, both parents work and have little or no control over what their children do during the day. The schools are overcrowded making for little interaction between students and teachers. There is also no communication between schools and parents, causing great obstacles to control not only the students, but also their drug use. One school for the elite has built a wall around their grounds and does not allow the students to leave during school hours. They have also begun drug awareness programs and are pressuring parents to become more actively involved in their children’s lives. These changes have appeared to decrease drug use at this particular school and will hopefully catch on at other schools.
Unfortunately, drug use in Cambodia is seen as being extremely taboo. Many Cambodians completely ignore the subject, pretending it does not exist. Because drug use is not discussed and ignored, getting medical treatment at a drug rehabilitation center has collided with their beliefs and taboos.
When an individual does decide that they would like to get treatment, they do not have many options. Cambodia is said to have 11 drug rehab centres. According to a US government ambassador these rehabs “are boot camps at best” and “torture centers at worst”. Treatment is harsh and includes electric shock with batons, beatings, sexual abuse, and excessive exercise and labour. This alone is enough to turn anyone away from getting help locally for a drug addiction.