Connect to share and comment

It's not just Colorado and Washington: The world is abandoning the US-backed drug war in favor of a more liberal approach to cannabis.

Cambodia drugs 2212013
Cambodian authorities burn more than one ton of drugs at a destruction ceremony in Phnom Penh on Aug. 28, 2012. Though drugs are illegal in Cambodia, a worldwide loosening of marijuana laws is testing rigid UN drug conventions. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

Who won the drug war? Drugs did

The world — not just Colorado and Washington — embraces a more laissez faire approach to narcotics.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On the books, marijuana is illegal in Cambodia. But on the streets — in particular, the capital’s main riverside promenade — travelers will find a poor man’s Amsterdam.

Phnom Penh’s downtown dealers are unabashed. After nightfall, they line Sisowath Quay, about a dozen blocks of Cambodia’s finest riverfront real estate. Foreigners on an evening stroll down the main drag pass through a gauntlet of pot propositions: “You want smoke? Marijuana?”

They do not bother to whisper.

Those skittish of street deals can duck into one of several pizza shops, “Happy Herb’s Pizza” or “Pink Elephant Pizza” among them. They are cannabis dispensaries concealed under a thin veil of innuendo. Pizzas ordered “happy” are dusted with flakes of ganja.

The effect: a high that fogs thought, puts lead in your footsteps, stokes the appetite (perhaps for more pizza) and throws a dull haze over the next 24 hours. That’s right, 24 hours.

Traditionalists can order 10-gram bags from the kitchen stash for $20.

If the pizza shops aren’t convenient enough, smokers can stay indoors and call the delivery hotline.

“Just don’t smoke it on the street. That’s all,” said a server at one of Phnom Penh’s downtown pot-and-pizza joints. “Don’t worry about police. Police know everything.”

Nations such as Portugal and the Netherlands have the most prominent reputations for rejecting the United States-helmed “War on Drugs” approach in favor of liberal narcotics laws. Latin American countries including Mexico and Colombia, bloodied by cartel carnage, have pushed the trend further by decriminalizing small amounts of pot.

But Cambodia — like Pakistan and Egypt — belongs to a lesser-recognized category: countries that have adopted US-style pot laws under White House pressure but seldom enforce them. Its modern marijuana market offers a case study in de facto decriminalization.

Drug policy experts contend that nations such as Cambodia, impoverished and deeply reliant on US aid, must feign an anti-cannabis stance — even in the absence of political or popular support for police action against pot.

“If they didn’t, there would be serious backlash from the US,” said Benoit Gomis, a narcotics policy analyst with the London-based Chatham House research institute. “So is it worth making a big fuss about drug policy when you receive assistance for so many other things? Like your economy? That’s a diplomatic calculation they have to make.”

The world says, legalize it!

Across the globe, pot tolerance is trending up. The list of nations that have to some degree decriminalized cannabis possession in small quantities grows by the year. An incomplete roster now includes Argentina, Australia, the Czech Republic, Colombia, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and Uruguay.

In Italy and parts of Australia, users may grow a small amount on their terrace. In parts of India, state-managed shops in certain provinces can sell “bhang” — hash balls — and mystics can indulge with impunity. In Spain’s Basque Country, smokers are free to join “cannabis social clubs” that cultivate their own pot to meet members’ needs.

Mexico is pursuing a radical change in its approach to drugs. After a six-year battle against gangs and traffickers that cost some 60,000 lives, the country’s new president has announced a new emphasis on prevention. The government will spend $9.2 billion on social programs — including infrastructure, construction and longer school hours — in Mexico’s 251 most violent neighborhoods.

“It’s clear that we must put special emphasis on prevention, because we can’t only keep employing more sophisticated weapons, better equipment, more police, a higher presence of the armed forces in the country as the only form of combating organized crime,” said President Pena Nieto in announcing the program.

Even in brutally authoritarian North Korea, police squads execute meth abusers while ignoring marijuana use, according to reports from Open Radio for North Korea and NK News.

But perhaps the boldest challenge comes from South America’s Uruguay, where lawmakers are considering government-run marijuana emporiums. The proposed “National Institute of Cannabis” would sell pot at below-market rates, undercut the street traffickers and funnel the proceeds towards drug treatment centers.

This global loosening of pot laws is testing rigid United Nations drug conventions, which favor US-style prohibition and still regard marijuana as a dangerous narcotic. 

“The starting point of the drug convention is that drugs are bad,”