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Michael Aquino

Drugs in Cambodia - "Pot Prohibition Never Really Caught On"

By December 17, 2010

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Image of marijuana plant © Getty Images.

I received a very informative email from Halvor, an expat in Cambodia, who was keen on educating me about the situation on the ground as he sees it. Simply saying "drug enforcement is spotty in Cambodia" (as I did in my article about drugs in Southeast Asia) doesn't really capture the real picture, according to Halvor - the marijuana culture in Cambodia, from his experience, is not as far underground as it is, say, in Singapore, but the availability of cheap drugs brings its own problems.

Duty requires me to state that Halvor's email does not reflect the opinions of About.com or yours truly, but I'd be remiss if I didn't present a more authentic picture. Anyway, I'll let Halvor fill you in on the rest - his comments follow from this point on.

People you revere (older brother/sister) are called "bong" in Cambodian, and that's pretty much the short story when it comes to pot smoking here. But if you want the long one...

Pot prohibition never really caught on in Cambodia, because it's been used as a traditional herb for cooking and innocent enjoyment as far as anyone can remember. It's not like in the West where there were suddenly all these darkie mexicans, blacks, Hindus and young musicians and strange people needed to be combatted with a war on drugs. Also, you try having a hangover when it's 40 degrees in the shade!

In fact they used to sell marihuana at the local Cambodian markets for the kinds of money Cambodians paid for local herbs until at least the year 2000. In the countryside some people will give it to you as a favor by the shopping-bag-fulls if they think you want it.

As for openness and risk of getting caught for smoking pot in Phnom Penh, as far as I can tell it's practically zero if you're not particularly socially inept and/or unlucky. Almost all the locals and frequent visitors I know here consider smoking pot openly at bars a privilege as a resident and nothing to worry about. It's just like riding without a helmet as a foreigner. In Phnom Penh, it's your head - you break it from doing too much drugs or not wearing a helmet, tough luck, but basically it's your head, so it's your risk, and your problem if something happens.

Of course you might get into trouble if you're a complete idiot about it, like insisting on smoking a joint in the bar at Friday night when it's full of customers or blowing the smoke right in a policeman's face. I've never heard of any foreigner getting busted for smoking pot or using other drugs here, and I usually read the papers. Police just don't consider it proper to extort tourists for meaningful amounts of money because of pot smoking, unlike in Thailand for example.

In fact, if you want another proof about how lax pot laws are in Cambodia, just look in the yellow pages, and you'll find "happy pizza" ie. pizza with marihuana in most big cities in Cambodia. Here in Phnom Penh they are clustered among the best (and busiest, priciest and touristiest) bars and restaurants by the riverside right by FCC. The tuk tuks ouside even have rastafarian colours and psychedelic sound systems if you need some additional stimuli to get a groove on, mon.

Sok Pean (right) smokes heroin as her son, Thea, 2, waits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Paula Bronstein / Getty Images.

The real problems with drugs in Cambodia is if you're a drug addict, you're likely to take too many drugs, because they're quite cheap and strong. Cocaine is cheaper and purer than in most Western cities because of various new ethnic groups are earning a lot of money from smuggling it.

Valium and codeine are available from almost any pharmacy; a combined codeine/paracetamol tablet can be obtained without a prescription. But smuggling, including even legal pharmaceuticals such as valium and codeine from within Cambodia via state and private mail is very strictly punished.

This really has nothing to with Cambodian drug policies against foreigners which are really lax unless you're a big time dealer (and even then, it usually only means the bribes are bigger and you will get deported after any action against you).

However, Cambodian laws for smuggling to other countries are harsh because it's a poor country and drugs are cheap and available, also it's close to the golden triangle and a lot of heavy pot and opium producers, so some broke foreigners have tried to stop the eventual chuck-out by smuggling drugs to other richer countries, which would mean all sorts of international pressure and trouble for Cambodia if it caught on.

But the biggest drug problem of all here of course is alcohol. Often at under a dollar a beer and with plenty of cheerful girly company to make the brew go down, I think half the white (and a third of the yellow) male single population is trying to drink itself to death here, which is quite tragic when you could have a happy life in a friendly country with very nice people.

I think a lot of people would be better off smoking some more pot and drinking less, really. Pot tourists and locals are usually polite and easily entertained by far out things such as Angkor Wat with red and blue lights at night. I wish I could say similar nice things about some of the rowdier drinkers here.



December 19, 2010 at 2:13 am
(1) Sandra says:

Nice report. You can get alcohol even cheaper here actually. In the beer gardens right in the city the beer is often 1.25 dollars a pitcher. But it’s a very nice way to drink outside in the warm summer nights with happy people and good cheap food compared to some dreary bars in Western countries. For locals it’s not cheap, but for Westerners and foreign Asians it can be easy to drink too often since money is often not a problem.

In the sadder abuse part of the market you can get a low end bottle of mekong whiskey for well under a dollar if you’re a local or know where to look. Mekong whiskey isn’t really whiskey though, it’s a more or less clean form of alcohol depending on what you buy and who you know with some spices added for taste. It’s not recommended if you don’t really trust those who made it….

December 20, 2010 at 9:07 am
(2) Casey Nelson says:

This sort of posting in both unnecessary and irresponsible. Cambodia doesn’t need to advertise for druggies to come over and break the law. Bad for the country, potentially dangerous for the druggy. If the intent of such a posting is to advertise Cambodia as a drug tourist destination, you’re just going to ruin it for everybody. It will draw naive drug tourists and abusers, who in their numbers and naiveté are just going to make problems and annoy the authorities, which will lead to stricter enforcement and more corruption. And if the intent is to highlight the problem of lax enforcement of drug laws, you are just advertising the country as a drug tourist destination and exacerbating the problem by enticing abusers and other scofflaws to come over and use drugs. If for no other reason than the danger, you shouldn’t be doing drugs overseas anyway. And if you need to read about it on internet to know where and how, it’s a sure sign you’re way way too naïve and uninformed to get involved in such things. If you want to break the law and abuse drugs, do it in your own country where you have at least some clue about the rules of the game. BTW, Halvor is wrong on several points. Most bars in Phnom Penh these days do not allow people to smoke openly, the helmet laws are currently being vigorously enforce (especially for clueless foreigners), most of the coke isn’t even really coke, and the hill tribe people are smuggling crank (methamphetamine,) not coke, which also happens to be one of the country’s quickest growing drug problems.

December 20, 2010 at 11:41 am
(3) Greg Rodgers says:

Our job as journalists and writers is to show what is really going on in the world – particularly Southeast Asia. No one is going to stick a joint in your mouth when you go to Cambodia. That is a personal choice that responsible travelers have to make for themselves – whether they read something about it online or not. Exposing a growing problem, rather than keeping it under the rug, is typically a good thing.

Mike’s post here clearly outlines the dangers and stupidity of doing drugs abroad: http://goseasia.about.com/od/travelplanning/a/seasia_drugs.htm

December 20, 2010 at 4:56 pm
(4) Mike Aquino says:

For the record, my personal stance on drugs in Southeast Asia goes like this:

Don’t, the laws are weighed against you, and you can’t count on the State Department for their utmost support if you do get caught on drug charges. I’ll provide you all the information you need to make an informed choice, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I’m still glad for Casey’s point of view – while Halvor’s email didn’t lack for any downside, Casey relays a view that’s also valid w.r.t. the dangerous intersection of drugs and tourism.

(On a side note, Halvor chided me earlier for being uninformed about the drug situation in Cambodia, when all I had to say about it at the time was that the law was “spottily enforced” – on this subject, at least, you just can’t win!) :)

December 22, 2010 at 6:58 am
(5) Halvor says:

Cambodia needs a pot based war on drugs like it needs any other war. It needs it like California, Mexico, the US, the Middle East or the world needs a new war. It doesn’t. It needs government to take care of its citizens and not meddle in their affairs. And it certainly subverts the people’s interests to have huge amounts of people persecuted and jailed every year for something as trivial as pot, which has never been happening to a large extent in Cambodia anyway.

What Cambodia needs is to attract a well paying, resourceful group of foreigners to help the country financially and with development, since it’s poor and particularly suited for tourism. It needs to create real, valid niches to exploit, not just be a cheaper, rougher alternative to Thailand. With lax pot laws the same as they’ve ever been, the country saves money with enforcement, and it also gains money from pot smoking tourists. It’s a legitimate way of increasing revenue without, say, exploiting your population or environment for money, or by just underbidding other countries. It would be even bigger if the government simply said they were no longer willing to use resources on marihuana related use. Of course, it’s not the solution to every problem, but if you know any easier ways to make money during this recession, I’m sure a lot of people would like to know.

It seems like the worst strategy against hard drugs would be a US style war on drugs with long prison terms, police and state brutality, and treating it like a complex health and educational issue would be the best. Of course, treating something like a complex problem that requires a lot to understand is a lot harder than just locking someone up. Unfortunately, while it’s very easy, locking people up usually isn’t a very good treatment for drug addiction.

And Cambodia should not try to attract Western drug addicts. I don’t know where you got that idea from really, but since you seem like the only one arguing it I’ll just leave you with it.

December 22, 2010 at 7:02 am
(6) Halvor says:

And here are some comments to Casey:

BTW, Halvor is wrong on several points. Most bars in Phnom Penh these days do not allow people to smoke openly

What I said was regulars who stay at places friendly to regulars who like to smoke do it, not that anyone can, anywhere.

the helmet laws are currently being vigorously enforce (especially for clueless foreigners)

Yes, and it’s completely legal to ride a moto without a helmet if you’re a passenger, but it costs 0.75 USD for khmers and 1 dollar for foreign drivers not to wear one. But that includes the right to ride without a helmet for the rest of the day since you can legally only be ticketed once a day. One dollar would hardly be considered a threat to most Western persons, so my point stands, although there might be minor legal implications in driving without a helmet or doing drugs for tourists in Cambodia, basically it’s your head that’s the main issue.

most of the coke isn’t even really coke and the hill tribe people are smuggling crank (methamphetamine,) not coke, which also happens to be one of the country’s quickest growing drug problems

It’s my experience from living here some time and a lot of other places is that drugs are cheap, pure and available. Maybe some people would like to disagree, it’s my experience at least. I don’t remember living at another upscale place where the local coke dealer on coke was manically trying to give away free coke to show me just how precious it was when I was trying to get home at night. There are also problems with yama and heroin among locals, which are a bit too complex to discuss here I think. Nice blog by the way.

December 22, 2010 at 7:59 pm
(7) Mike Aquino says:

With lax pot laws the same as they’ve ever been, the country saves money with enforcement, and it also gains money from pot smoking tourists.

Regional relations being what they are, I don’t think Cambodia will ever make a Netherlands-style end to pot prohibition above board. Not that I think U.S. style drug wars are the bees’ knees – but Cambodia does risk bringing in the wrong types of tourists (drug addicts, etc.) if they relax the official stance against drugs without having the right institutions in place to deal with the consequences, like the Netherlands has had for a while.

December 22, 2010 at 10:23 pm
(8) Halvor says:

I don’t know if actual cannabis policies differ that much compared to the Netherlands, maybe it’s more the perception of the countries that are different. Holland never legalized cannabis, although some people like to think so. They adopted a policy of tolerance, ie. they would tolerate cannabis unless it was associated with other problems. That’s pretty much what they do in Phnom Penh too, they tolerate it unless you’re being a nuisanse about it. Happy pizzas are in the Cambodian yellow pages and right on the Riverside and king size rolling papers can be bought in super markets and most 24h convenience stores, so really, it’s no secret. Cannabis use is out in the open here, unless you want to ignore it.

I agree having a more open policy on hard drugs could lead to the wrong elements coming here. That certainly has happened in Europe. But the tendency in Europe now is to treat drug addiction as a health and medical issue, not a police matter, and tolerate cannabis use. Cambodia clearly benefits from not having adopted a US style war on drugs, but I don’t think they will renounce it. However, if they scrapped the idea of cannabis prohibition while not inviting to hard drug use, they’d probably just end up with more high return tourists, which is exactly what they need.

January 2, 2011 at 3:21 am
(9) Mark Christopher Staben says:

Hill People smuggle yama? The POLICE in the Phillippines who killed a busload of Chinese, was a member of a Shabu and extortion gang=disgruntled employee.

I have been held hostage for 3 years by a Yama dealing police gang operating Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Their dealers will dose your food, drink and follow you home to burglarize you. Many have foreign members in their gangs.

Remember Freeway Ricky Ross and his “surveillance teams”?

Cambodian Police/government want your Money period. They will do anything to get it …BEWARE.

June 7, 2011 at 6:56 am
(10) I. N. Stein says:

I got my bags packed, but I can’t find it on the map. Oh , wait… I’ve got it upside down.

July 27, 2011 at 2:41 pm
(11) Kris says:

My friend just got arrested yesterday night with weed on him. I don’t know much else as of now since it’s 1 am in Cambodia but I’m freaking out. What are his chances? Can we pay his way out? What do I do??? I need any and all information to help prolate myself for what’s to come n what I can do!
Thanks everyone!

May 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm
(12) diinamik says:

Great Report >>…. The One I Was Looking For! Cambodia 2012 june 9th here i goooo!

May 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm
(13) Good advice for bad people says:

I currently live in Cambodia (Phnom Penh). I’ll update you on the situation and clear some things up.

1. Marijuana is widely available. Certain bars sell joints for maybe 2 bucks. Some places don’t mind you smoking inside, others prohibit it but will probably just ask you to go out front. You can get weed from just about any tuk-tuk (taxi) driver in the tourist areas if you want a larger amount. It is usually real weed, not bunk. The laws regarding marijuana are only enforced if a cop sees an opportunity to extort a westerner for bribe money, but it shouldn’t cost you TOO much if it is just pot. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. He doesn’t want to arrest you because if he does he’ll probably lose money – his superiors will start demanding their cut, he may not get much of anything.

2. Meth (ice/glass) is available but the chances of getting ripped off are pretty high unless you know somebody. They have fake stuff that looks pretty damned good. Try tasting it if that helps you. The prices in Cambodia have risen a lot, and it is now often more expensive than in America unless you have a connection. Over $100 for a gram is typical if its a random buy,.

3. Yama or yaba – crazy pills – are meth pills cut with caffeine or sometimes morphine, but the amount of morphine is probably inconsequential to anyone with a taste for it. I’d guess they have maybe .10 to .15 of speed in them. You can smoke them, but the cut makes it melt into a brown pool and the smoke isn’t great tasting. Real yaba are small and pink, usually with a slight vanilla odor, and initials stamped on them like WS. If they hand you a big white pill or something, you just got a vitamin. They cost around $15 for westerners, not sure how much for Cambodians, probably $10 or something. They used to cost just a few dollars like a decade ago, but those days are over.


May 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm
(14) Good advice for bad people. says:

4. Heroin is easily available, this being SE Asia. I’m not current on prices, but again, as a foreigner, you are going to pay more than the locals and probably more than you were hoping to pay given where you are. If you get to know some people, the prices improve obviously. Do whatever you can to check that it isn’t fake, same as everything else, it is just as likely to be bogus as real.

5. I don’t know who the original article writer met, but he didn’t have a typical Cambodian experience regarding cocaine. Cocaine isn’t widely grown in the region, they don’t have it in their cultural background like South America does. It is a rarity and usually costs a lot. If you try to buy it from someone you don’t know, it will either be bogus or sometimes heroin. Unless you are there long term and get to know some solid people, don’t bother trying.

6, Also, if you can eyeball the bag’s weight on any buy, do so – for any drug. They will offer you a gram and then try to hand you a half-gram, almost every single time until you know somebody, In fact, be very suspicious if the bag looks heavy and it’s from a stranger. If the bag doesn’t weigh, argue the point and refuse to buy it – this will sometimes inspire them to produce another bag that, coincidentally, looks just like the half that yours was missing. Remember, these are usually tuk-tuks doing this on the side, they aren’t gangsters carrying guns. Don’t be rude, threatening, or violent – that can draw an angry crowd – but feel free to walk away from anything that doesn’t look right. If you get to know somebody reliable who you are OK with meeting at your home or whatnot, they’ll often have a scale. Random tuk-tuks won’t though.

(CONT … )

May 20, 2012 at 4:24 pm
(15) Good advice for bad people says:

7. Do the deal in as public of a place as is practical. Don’t let them drive you off to some part of town you don’t know on a dark street. Make them go fetch it and come back. Don’t worry about regular locals or expats noticing what you are up to, they don’t care, Cambodia is a crazy place and you aren’t going to shock anybody. Do worry about the presence of any kind of police. They won’t arrest you unless it’s a big amount, they’ll just extort you for as much money as they possibly can and then let you go, but that can include taking you to an ATM and clearing out your account. Sometimes tuk-tuks or motodops or whomever will work with a cop to run a racket like this, but they prefer to do it out of the public eye. So if you stay in a public place with a lot of people – locals and foreigners – the guy setting you up may call it off because he doesn’t want a bad reputation with the real dealers and customers. The government recently installed some cameras around the Riverside (tourist) area but nobody is sure what they are for yet. Stuff like that is usually about political control more than crime, but still, keep it in mind.

8. If you’ve used drugs in the west, you probably already know this, but don’t front money to people you don’t know. You will either watch them drive off into the night never to return, or you will have zero recourse if they bring you bunk stuff because you’ve already paid for it. They don’t need the money up front (they know the people in the neighborhood, they sell this stuff regularly, it just isn’t like that) so if they say they do, then be suspicious.

(CONT … )

May 20, 2012 at 4:26 pm
(16) Good advice for bad people says:

9. Pretty much be suspicious, period. Until you’ve gotten to know some people, if you are scoring from strangers or random people, you will get ripped off a lot unless you take some of my advice to heart. Getting scammed is pretty standard. Sometimes if you call them on it and walk away from the deal, they’ll come correct and play fair. Don’t get too offended- you’re just another white face with a lot more money than them who they figure is in the country for the women, booze, and drugs, and you’ll be in Thailand next week or whatever. It is easy to forget, but Cambodia is incredibly poor, and westerners who work there (usually teaching or at an NGO, and usually part time) easily earn 5 or 10 times the salary of a local with two regular jobs. So they aren’t going to weep for you if you lose a hundred bucks or even a thousand on a bad drug deal, they think you are rich and most of them don’t understand much about life in the west – cost of living, poverty, economics – not on their radar. Life is tough and cheap in Cambodia.

At the same time, don’t be a complete pushover – if you catch them scamming you, call them on it in as calm a manner as possible and then walk, Don’t let them guilt you or bully you into doing anything you don’t want to. Again, most of the people you’ll deal with aren’t dangerous at all compared to western dealers, just very dishonest – corruption is a way of life here, from the gov’t on down to the beggars, but real violence or gun play is rare between Cambodians and foreigners.

Don’t take shit, but don’t start shit – if you start an altercation with a local, you can quickly be surrounded by a crowd of angry Cambodians and then you are in real danger. They might stomp you, and the police won’t help. No ambulance will come. Maybe somebody else will take pity on you after and get you to the hospital eventually. But that stuff won’t happen if you keep your head together, stay calm, and don’t start trouble. Don’t get angry, just walk away.

May 21, 2012 at 4:19 am
(17) Mike Aquino says:

Looked at your IP. You’re not kidding. Your very apt advice aside, I just have to repeat (hi, lawyers!) that your comments do not reflect the opinions of About.com or yours truly. Carry on.

January 10, 2013 at 12:27 am
(18) john barleycorn says:

Casey Nelson

December 19, 2013 at 5:40 am
(19) Jem says:

Im going to Sihanoukville soon to visit friends and was wondering what the law is re.. taking prescibed meds into the Country as im currently on methadone (tho may b on subutex wen I fly, hopefully). I will only b over there 1 month but im worried I will b arrested on arrival if I take my meds with me.

December 19, 2013 at 5:59 am
(20) Mike Aquino says:

Bring your prescriptions with you. Good luck with your trip!

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