Cambodia and illegal drugs: Live and let live… until you die

OFFICIALLY, the Cambodian authorities are shocked, shocked that drug use is rampant among locals and tourists. Unofficially, it’s live and let live on the streets of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville – you’re relatively free to buy and use marijuana, yaba, and heroin, so long as you don’t flaunt it unnecessarily.

Is this Cambodia’s oldest depiction of marijuana use? Image © Colin Mutchler / Creative Commons.

“Pot prohibition never really caught on in Cambodia,” writes “Halvor”, an expat and old Cambodian hand. “It’s been used as a traditional herb for cooking and innocent enjoyment as far as anyone can remember.”

Halvor says the risk of getting nabbed for pot possession is “practically zero if you’re not particularly socially inept and/or unlucky.”

Pot is very easy to come by in Cambodia; chalk it up to marijuana’s long history among Cambodians as a therapeutic herb. It’s often used as an ingredient in food, and tourists order it through “happy pizzas” to this day.

Not that drug use in Cambodia is without its risks. Corrupt law enforcement and cheating dealers can throw you for a loop if you’re not careful.

Caveat emptor. In marked contrast to Singapore and Bali, most foreigners who get in the news for drugs do so by dying from overdoses. Such deaths are usually reported as “heart attacks”, but it’s easy to read between the (snorted) lines.

Again, it’s the Golden Triangle effect at work – with so much of it being produced next door, heroin is pretty easy to come by in Cambodia. It’s easy to get and purer than what is sold in Europe or in the U.S. It’s so cheap, dealers will sell heroin as “cocaine”… leading to all those unfortunate “heart attacks” in the news.

A “happy pizza” store in Phnom Penh. Image © Divya Manian / Creative Commons

Drug lords. Wondering why drugs are relatively easier to score in Cambodia? Because of encouragement from the higher-ups. Some of the closest advisors to the present government are alleged to be profiting from the illegal drug trade. As a result, Cambodia has become a major transshipment point for the Golden Triangle operations manufacturing and trafficking in heroin and methamphetamine.

This is what it means to the average tourist: yes, drugs can be sought with less problems than, say, in Thailand, but you can still be arrested by the police, particularly if the opportunity for extortion presents itself.

So when in Cambodia… keep your head down. Your drug habit won’t be as scrutinized as much as it might be in the rest of Southeast Asia… but if you get picked up by the police or if the line of what you thought was cocaine sends you to the hospital or worse, you are entirely on your own.