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.