Sunday, June 10, 2012


It’s too bad Cambodia has been caught up in conservative, mostly US-fueled, drug-war fervor since it’s easily the most tolerant, laid back society in Asia. It was only 20 years ago, before UNTAC came in to conduct Cambodia’s first post-KR elections and coincidentally tell the country it had to crack down on drugs, that you could buy a shopping bag of ganja at Russian Market in Phnom Penh for about a dollar. In talking to locals about cannabis who remember the times before prohibition, I’ve heard comments like, We used to smoke it when we couldn’t afford tobacco, or We used it to flavor our soup.
Back then I was able to toke up in almost all the bars I frequented in the capital. The police hardly ever came out at night and nobody ever seemed to care, though some people were definitely turned off by the sweet smell of pot smoke. That all changed a few years back when the police paid a visit to all the bars and told them that the evil weed would no longer be tolerated. Still, though you can get busted today for pot possession, though probably not for small amounts, it’s somehow okay to spike your pizzas with the stuff. We’ve even got our first happy pizza restaurant in Kampot - Happy Dreamily Pizza.
Use of recreational drugs is best left to individual choice. Everybody has a right, or should have the right, to choose their own poison. There’s no way to stop people from doing what they want in a free country, even just a nominally free place like Cambodia. Moreover, education works as well or better than prohibition in curtailing drug use. In a class I taught in a local university some nine years ago I led a discussion of drugs. The general attitude of the students was that drug dealers should be executed. They didn’t need threats of prosecution to keep them from using drugs, they were already fanatically against them, their education and upbringing was enough.
The only thing you accomplish by prohibition is to raise prices to very high levels and thus draw in criminal involvement and the violence that often goes with any trade in contraband.
In Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam drug dealers are killed. One of Taksin Shinawatra’s claims to fame when he first took office was his ordering Thai police to summarily execute lots of drug dealers and 2500 people were offed in short order. I had a conversation at that time with a Thai based expat visiting Cambodia. He was all in favor of that murderous rampage, talking about how bad yaba was, until I pointed out that without giving people the opportunity to defend themselves it was likely that at least 5% to 10% of that 2500 were guilty of only minor crimes or were innocent but had gotten their names on the hit list because someone in the police department didn’t like them.
In Singapore possession of as little as 15 grams of heroin or 200 grams of ganja is a mandatory death sentence. Not long ago a Singaporean couple returning from a trip to Australia were drug tested and wound up spending two years in the brink for smoking pot on their vacation; who knows, it could’ve been only a puff or two. Ganja, being oil based stays in your system for about 30 days. The hard drugs, on the other hand, are all water based so shoot up heroin, cocaine or meth on Friday night and you’re clean Monday morning when you get to work. Today every corporate job in America requires drug testing and the vast majority of positives are from pot.
The fundamental problem with state murder of people for small amounts of drugs is that drug laws are based on cultural bias and change with the times. It wasn’t that long ago  historically speaking - 1920 till 1933 - that marijuana was legal in America while alcohol was prohibited. There’d never be a disagreement on the legality of murder, robbery, extortion and such, but it takes a staggering amount of arrogance and hubris for Singapore and many other countries to kill someone over marijuana when it’s easily available and practically legal in other places in the world.
If you want to drink yourself to death in Singapore, or merely imbibe till it destroys your family life, you’re perfectly welcome to it, though it’ll cost a bit since taxes there are really high. When backers of drug prohibition are asked why alcohol is legal and ganja is not, though by any scientific, existential, non-emotional standard alcohol is much worse, they often respond by saying, We already have one bad drug, we don’t need another. They should be honest and finish their statement by saying; besides I like a cold beer on a hot afternoon, I like a glass of wine after dinner, I like a shot of brandy before hitting the sack. If I like it, it’s okay, if I don’t, you go to jail or get offed.
Now that squeaky-clean Singapore is promoting casino gambling (Have you noticed they don’t call it gambling anymore, it’s now gaming. You know, it’s just a game, just for fun.) you can blow your life savings and your family’s future, but that’s okay because it brings tourism and makes lots of money for the state.
If you want to stuff your face to the point where you can barely walk and your life has been shortened by decades, all assisted by constant TV advertising encouraging you to do just that, then no problem, knock yourself out, it’s your life, after all. But if you take one puff of the evil weed, you’re a scourge to society and must pay dearly for your dastardly, miscreant behavior.
The other point prohibitionists like to make, which is not born out by the statistics is that a lot more people will do drugs if they are legal or more easily obtainable. Holland provides the best example. Fewer young people smoke pot there where it’s virtually legal, than in America where nearly a million people are languishing in prison over non-violent marijuana related offenses.
Portugal also provides a good example since in 2001 all drugs, not just cannabis, were decriminalized. Portugal now has some of the lowest percentages of drug use in Europe, when for instance it once had the highest percentage of heroin users. Today, a smaller percentage of people in the country have an experience with ganja than those who’ve used cocaine in America. Ten percent have tried cannabis there compared to nearly 40% in America.
Around 40 years ago Tricky Dick Nixon was shown a government report that suggested ganja should be decriminalized since its effects were essentially benign. Instead he did the opposite and began America’s War on Drugs. He could clearly see that the majority of people opposed to the Vietnam war were tokers so he rightly figured he could use drug laws to suppress the anti-war movement.
His ‘War’ has done nothing to suppress drug use, but has served to disrupt and/or destroy millions of people’s lives and helped to create a massive industrial prison system. Now that many of America’s prisons are corporate owned, there’s profit to be made from incarcerating lots of non conformists as well as common criminals.
Changes, though are afoot. Bolivians have elected a former coca farmer as president, and Latin American countries as a whole are rethinking the ‘Drug War’ military response to what is essentially a public health problem. They suffer far more from drug war mania than the US, the world’s biggest user country. The drug cartels have millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to bribe and/or threaten police and public officials. It is an especially difficult situation for smaller countries but even Mexico, a large middle income country has seen 50,000 drug war related deaths since the current president started his ‘crackdown’ on the drug trade six years ago. The cartels have a gruesome cant; in the latest example nearly fifty headless, handless, footless bodies - hard to identify that way - were dumped in a prominent urban place. As a result the Latin’s feel they have to find a different path.
Changes are also afoot in the US. Polls in some states are showing majorities in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis. When you subtract the cost of apprehending, adjudicating and incarcerating large numbers of pot users from public budgets and then add the tax take from legalizing it, it should be a no brainer; still, regressive, narrow-minded, idiocy dies hard. The movement to decriminalize pot began in 1973 in Oregon, when possession of less than an ounce - 28 grams - was turned into a violation similar to a traffic ticket with a $50 fine. About 16 states have since followed suit.
About the same number now permit medical marijuana. In Oregon, one of the first states to allow it, the change was propelled by the experience of a conservative constituent of a conservative Republican rural state legislator. This woman had suffered for a long time from glaucoma. She was scheduled for an operation on a Monday, but having heard of pot’s healing qualities thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. She started smoking on Friday evening, kept it up all weekend and went into the hospital for a pre-op checkup on Monday. The doctor looked at her eyes and proclaimed that they were fine and she needed no operation. After she related her experience to her state legislator, he became an advocate and the die was cast. It isn’t a miracle cure for all types of glaucoma, but a couple of joints in place of an eye operation… also a no brainer.
Just recently - mid-May 2012 - a New York judge wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging the state legislature to legalize medical marijuana. He’d been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and try as he might to find a legal drug to combat the nausea and lack of appetite that goes with chemo treatment, nothing but smoking pot worked. He broke the law in order to receive proper treatment, this doubtless after putting lots of people away for marijuana related offenses. Meanwhile the federal government has classified pot as a class A drug with no medical uses and Obama’s justice department has been going after medical marijuana dispensaries, which are legal under state law, with a vengeance. This from a president who admitted smoking, and inhaling, as a youth… effing hypocrite.
The one good aspect of prohibiting pot is the healthy distrust of government it engenders. With all the dire warnings you’ve been taught about the descent into perdition that comes with the first puff, you’re expecting far more impact than pot delivers. Even if you don’t like the feeling and have no intention of smoking again, the one thing you come away from the experience with it is that it’s essentially harmless and all that you’ve been told about it by the establishment is bullshit and hype.
A major lie foisted on the public by the anti-drug establishment is that smoking pot is dangerous to your health, equal to tobacco. While smoking anything can cause irritation, coughing and other respiratory problems, there’s nothing in ganja smoke that can develop into cancer or other diseases. Back in the 80’s I knew a guy who was doing marijuana research. They had gathered together a group of guys, gave them as much pot as they wanted and told them to smoke themselves out. After a couple of months they became afraid and called off the study because the subjects’ respiratory systems were becoming congested with cannabis tars. Two months later they were completely clean with no permanent damage. That’s in contrast to tobacco which permanently scars the small passages, the cilia, in the lungs.
Also, it’s not possible to OD on pot. According to America’s Drug Enforcement Administration you would have to smoke about 700 kilos in 15 minutes to OD… even my son who’s a legendary wake and baker can’t do that.
What about the hard drugs: heroin, cocaine, meth? For sure you can OD on them, but that’s partly a result of prohibition, since you never know the potency of what you’re getting on the street. All three will make you look wrinkled, washed out and old before your time if you let them control your life. At the same time you could use all three and continue to carry on a reasonably normal life if prohibition didn’t make them so expensive you were required you to steal and rob to get your fix. If you have a life, feel good about yourself, you can experiment without ever becoming addicted.
A relative who’s never been part of the hip scene asked me why people do heroin. The answer is simple: No matter how stressed, depressed, unhappy or sick you are in mind and/or body; no matter that you consider yourself a worthless turd and have no hope for a better future, when you shoot up you’re on top of the world. Nothing can hurt you or phase you. Morphine which has one tenth the potency of heroin, is one of the best medicinal painkillers because no matter how banged up or diseased you are, with sufficient morphine in your system you can handle any contingency.
A guy I met traveling related an experience he’d had with opium, which is one tenth the potency of morphine. Before he and a friend settled in to smoke in comfortable chairs he’d put an Eagles tape on his cassette player. Unfortunately, it was on continuous loop so they wound up having to listen to the whole album 7 or 8 times before either one could bring himself to rise up and change the tape. The Eagles!! You just feel sooo mellow and relaxed, nothing can bother you. With all the crazy shit happening in the world and the grave hardship so many people face in their daily lives, why not let them enjoy a little escape sometimes? Could it be worse than alcohol? At least guys wouldn’t be beating their wives around when on opium.
Cocaine, meth, whatever, nothing works better or causes less harm to society than education about drugs and dealing with each of them truthfully and intelligently. Cambodia, however, pushed by the international community is going at the problem in a harsh and unforgiving manner. Recently three teenage girls caught with 6 yaba pills between them were each given two years behind bars. Is that fair, does it make sense?
Cambodia is a relaxed and easygoing place, that’s one of the things we expats like most about the place. Entertainment is one of the country’s best bets for economic growth. Why not take a ‘happy-pizza’ attitude towards life and let people be themselves, make their own decisions and choose their own poison. It’s the adult way to do things.
I’m 70 years old. Is somebody going to tell me what’s good for me and what’s bad for me, what I’m supposed to like and what I’m not supposed to like?
Stan Kahn