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The world — not just Colorado and Washington — embraces a more laissez faire approach to narcotics.
Gomis said. “It says that if people are allowed to consume drugs legally, they’ll consume way more drugs. And that will lead to more death and violence and social disorder.”
The UN conventions are clear: Countries that have signed on (as almost all sizable countries have) are not permitted to start up a regulated marijuana trade in the vein of booze and tobacco markets.
“Any shift away from the predominately zero-tolerance approach of the UN treaties generates a number of oppositional forces,” said David Bewley-Taylor, a drug policy specialist at Swansea University in Wales.
“The reach and well-established nature of the global drug prohibition regime,” Bewley-Taylor said, “ensures that most states are reluctant to deviate ... and risk being labeled by the international community a rogue state.”
But that standard is shaken now that the US has developed its own rogue states: Washington and Colorado. Last fall, both passed referenda compelling the outright legalization of marijuana — although it remains to be seen how this will work while the federal government still bans the herb. Moreover, medical marijuana is allowed in a total of 18 states. America’s position to “exert pressure,” Bewley-Taylor said, “has been undermined by the situation in Washington and Colorado.”
And politicians, long shy about an issue that could alienate soccer moms, are increasingly speaking out. Recently, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people busted with small quantities of pot in the city will no longer spend the night in jail. He also called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to loosen marijuana laws.
The world, it seems, has reached a tipping point in the drug war.
Flouting a US ultimatum
In the 1990s, when war-torn Cambodia was even more unruly than it is today, marijuana was traded openly. Vendors in Phnom Penh’s downtown markets freely sold fat pillows of marijuana weighing a kilo or more. The herb grows naturally in the tropical nation of 15 million people, many of whom know pot as an old-timers’ habit or an ingredient in upcountry soups.
But when the US and other Western nations began showering Cambodia with aid in the 2000s, authorities suddenly deemed marijuana a nuisance and swept it from public view.
“The US gave them an ultimatum,” said a UN drug analyst speaking on condition of anonymity. “They said, ‘You can either have foreign aid or legal cannabis.’”
Today, drivers of “tuk-tuks” (motorized rickshaw taxis) are Phnom Penh’s go-to source for ganja. As in neighboring Thailand and Laos, tuk-tuk crews often act as intermediaries between travelers and vice: prostitutes, ganja or harder narcotics.
The pushy types park their tuk-tuks and work the riverside gauntlet. Some will advertise their wares by waving a still-fragrant, half-smoked joint under a tourist’s nose. In plain view, they often swap US cash for bags of so-called “skunk,” marketed as a higher quality of pot.
But Chhon — plump, smiley and 30-something — is a less aggressive breed of downtown Phnom Penh dealer on wheels.
“I just ask a person if he wants a ride and then talk about ganja in the tuk-tuk,” Chhon said. “A lot of people want ganja. The police know what we do. If they catch you, they might ask for some small money but they don’t stop it.”
That doesn’t mean top authorities don’t talk tough on pot. The national drug czar in 2008 went so far as to declare to a regional news outlet, The Mekong Times, that “marijuana is no longer available in Cambodia” after crop eradication campaigns.
But the government’s own drug figures render such bold pronouncements absurd.
For four years straight, Cambodia hasn’t managed to report arrests for pot possession to the regional UN narcotics database. In the last reporting year, 2008, authorities reported a scant six marijuana-related arrests.
The nation’s crop eradication efforts are similarly meek. In all of 2008, amid the run up to the then-drug czar’s proclaimed end of pot in Cambodia, drug police destroyed a mere 177 square meters of marijuana fields — a size comparable to a typical three-bedroom apartment. Even that was a bonanza compared to the most recent eradication figures: just 200 or so cannabis plants destroyed in 2011, according to government figures.
“We’ve noticed in the past five or six years, the quality of reporting coming from Cambodia dropped,” said Tun Nay Soe, a senior officer with the UN’s SMART program, which monitors global drug use trends. “We know they have plantations of cannabis that are grown commercially. But methamphetamine is much more of a problem there.”
Chhon is somewhat mystified by young foreigners’ deep appreciation for marijuana. According to a UN survey, marijuana is the fourth most-popular drug among Cambodians: crystal methamphetamine, meth and even inhalants are more widely consumed.
“Ganja is not so big for Cambodians,” Chhon said. “Most people with money want ice.”
This is Southeast Asian code for crystal meth, which grows more popular by the year. Its jumpy highs and wretched comedowns are totally unlike the marijuana high and the substance is now classified as the region’s top threat among regional drug agents.
But even Cambodian authorities indirectly concede that the pot prohibition stance in Washington, DC, never really took hold.
“The extent to which cannabis is used in Cambodia is unclear due in part to a level of tolerance for its traditional consumption,” the National Authority for Combating Drugs stated in an annual report.
This “traditional consumption” — sprinkling marijuana in select dishes — is also prevalent in surprisingly strict places: communist-run Laos, and the wilds of Indonesia’s Aceh province, the only Southeast Asian enclave controlled by Islamic Sharia Law.
“Even in my country, Myanmar, it’s quite normal for people to put cannabis in their food as a spice,” Tun Nay Soe said.
Whether Cambodia and other US aid-reliant nations keep up their anti-pot charade may largely depend on whether more influential nations can take on the prohibition regime. Officials in Mexico and other Latin countries, the chief targets of America’s foreign drug war, could feel emboldened to loosen pot laws further as select US states opt for legal pot sales.
“There’s been a realization almost everywhere that criminalization and the hard approach on drugs just isn’t working,” Gomis said. “It creates a bigger black market. It creates more violence.”
But Chhon is ambivalent about the future of Cambodia’s pot laws. After all, US interference shifted pot from the market stalls to the streets, where he can sometimes make $20-25 — no small sum in Cambodia — selling just one overpriced $40 bag to foreigners.
“Now, you can still buy ganja, you can smoke. There is still no trouble and no problem,” he said. “Just stay away from the street and don’t be stupid.”