In Cambodia we know about indulgence, it’s a place where good times and down-market desires are easy to come by. Where else can you buy a carton of cigarettes for a $1.25? And Cambo brand comes with coupons you can redeem to get extra free ones. Tobacco is the worst example of indulgence because it has no redeeming values, but it’s still instructive regarding government letting people be themselves. International players really want Cambodia to increase tobacco taxes to discourage smoking and in a sense it makes sense, but in addition to cutting back on undesirable habits or desires sin taxes are also designed to penalize the peons. It makes no difference to fat cats if a pack of cigarettes cost $25 as they do in Australia.
As stated previously I believe everyone has a right to their own poison, including tobacco. In the US tobacco use among adults has gone from 70% in the 1960s to less than 20% now. Advertising and promotion of fags was so pervasive back then people like myself started smoking at a very early age, for me it was 12. My parents who smoked would tell me not to, but what kind of moral authority did they have? They were a poor example. The industry worked very hard promoting denial right from the beginning so that some people think we weren’t aware of it’s dangers until more recently, but no, we called them coffin nails back in the fifties when I started. Still, when Camel ads claimed that 9 out of 10 doctors preferred them you got conflicting signals.
By the time tobacco advertising was banned on TV in spite of the industry’s claims that the link between their product and disease wasn’t clear a concerted effort was made to change course, thus the dramatic decline in tobacco use.
That was done through education. The entire society turned against tobacco and to a great extent it worked. The expense makes a difference, but once you’re stuck on them you’ll pay whatever you have to to get your fix and drain your wallet in the process, unless of course you have deep pockets. It’s unfair to those who are addicted and poor, like family people who buy cigs when they should be buying food or other important items. Tobacco taxes probably should be raised some, but very much and the higher cost might do more harm than good in regards to the countryside people who smoke.
I know people who puff away when they’re here, but not when they visit or return home to the west, which says two things. One that they’re not addicted, if they can take them or leave them, they’ll probably not smoke enough or long enough to develop a disease, so while there’s still nothing good about them, irregular smoking won’t cause serious harm. And second, smokers get pleasure or think they get pleasure from them; part of me thinks that’s absurd, but they evidently do satisfy something in the people who do it. Actually I can understand that since I like smoking pot much more than eating it. When I go through my regular bouts of coughing from smoking too much after smoking one thing or another for the last 65 years, I miss the act of smoking; edibles just don’t do it for me. In the end result, I think education is enough to accomplish the goal of minimizing tobacco use.
Alcohol is different. Along with the potentially terrible things is does to us it really does have redeeming values. It eases our mental and physical pains, relaxes our inhibitions and temporarily lets us relieve our frustrations and woes. Needless to say it can get out of hand; you feel so good after a few drinks you can’t help wanting more, but there’s that price to pay. Still it’s great to be in a place where it’s cheap enough to indulge when you want. At a price of one dollar or less in my favorite bars, my maximum four or five beers in one night is easy on a limited pension.
Here in Kampot many of us do our socializing in bars. While hanging out at friend’s places is also cool, bars offer lot more in terms of getting together and not just meeting friends, but potential new friends. With alcohol as a lubricant, it can be very enjoyable. Back in the states I’d be home six nights a week drinking by myself. It would be excruciatingly boring, just like the two nights a week here I force myself to stay home and not drink. In fact the brew is really starting to weigh on me physically, but still, the music, the laughter, the good times are irreplaceable and would be sorely missed if I had to be back there where I couldn’t afford to go out much.
I talked to a Swedish guy not long ago who said people don’t go out much there partly because the penalty for getting stopped driving home with even a small amount of alcohol in your system can be severe. It’s also very expensive to drink, so they stay home: what kind of life is that? Maybe you’re not damaging your body, but that kind of living could be really depressing, especially if you don’t have a lot of friends or romantic possibilities. And maybe it’s more damaging to your body to be unhappy than it is to have a couple beers.
Many studies have shown that people who drink a moderate 2 drinks a day live longer than teetotalers. A more recent study claimed that any alcohol is bad for you, but I don’t buy it, I won’t buy it. People have been imbibing alcoholic drinks for millennia. Besides, if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me: remember, His first miracle was turning water into wine.
When you place high taxes on alcohol you are penalizing the poor for being poor. Even in a rich country like Sweden there are lots of people on low incomes. With difficult lives, they’re the ones that need a drink now and then as much or even more than those who are better off. It’s true that Scandinavians have had a reputation as hard drinkers and that responsible governments would want to curb those excesses, but those long winter nights are so dark and cold, they can hardly be faulted for needing a bit of cheering up.
If you’re into spirits, here it’s nothing compared what they cost in the west. Imagine a liter bottle of Baileys for $15, I hear it’s $75 in Australia. Or a shot in a pub for $2 or $2.50. Why should a shot of Baileys be reserved for the middle classes and up? What’s so bad about having a bottle to nip on during those boring nights when you are stuck at home? Sin taxes are unfair.
Some people would characterize Cambodia as a place that’s gone too far in serving people’s tendency to indulge their alcohol habits because it’s easy enough to drink yourself to oblivion and a lot of people who have little else to occupy their time do just that. But really, it’s their choice. Sure they should be discouraged from that lifestyle, but let them be, it’s their life.
My favorite substance of indulgence is cannabis. In that case Cambodia is somewhat ambivalent. It’s illegal, same as all the other drugs on the UN’s list of forbidden highs and you can sure get some real time behind bars for selling it, but most times when they bust a peasant farmer, they simply educate him: bad boy, don’t do it again. Meanwhile, lots of pot fields are owned by the police and military. And somehow even though it’s illegal, there are lots of happy pizza restaurants located in prominent places where they’ll sprinkle weed on your pizza for a reasonable extra charge. They seem to have no problem obtaining it and no problem with the police for openly serving it in their eateries.
Cambodians have had a long association with marijuana and it was only after the UN took over to hold elections in 1993 that they forced the country to prohibit it. Before that you could go to a large public market in Phnom Penh and buy a shopping bag of it for a dollar. Subsistence farmers would smoke it when they couldn’t afford tobacco… admittedly it wasn’t very strong then. They’d also flavor their soups with it. Just an ordinary part of life.
Today the quality has improved greatly and it’s readily available. Not just that, but it’s often smoked openly in some bars and restaurants, though the police in Phnom Penh went around the bars quite a few years ago and told everyone to chill it. What bar and restaurant owners in the capital will do today is tell you to smoke out front rather than inside. Police don’t patrol often, hardly ever that I remember, and they’re not looking to bust for a few puffs anyway.
Countries like Canada, Uruguay and Portugal have made recreational use totally legal. Ten US states have also legalized it and many others are preparing to do the same so it makes no sense to continue a regressive anti-pot regime here in Cambodia. The criminalization of pot has always been a political issue since it’s always been clear that it’s essentially a harmless drug. Back in the sixties a US federal task force suggested that laws on it be eased, but Nixon looked at the main users at the time, minorities and the counterculture, and figured he could use harsh drug laws to target those groups he hated.
No-one has ever overdosed on it, that’s impossible. The US National Institute of Health has calculated that you’d need to smoke a ton of it in a short time to OD. Additionally, no death from disease has ever been attributed to it. Well, sure, anything you smoke is going to be an irritant and if you smoke too much your throat will feel it. In my case forcing me to stop for a week or two a few times a year.
Cannabis is a wonder of the plant kingdom: given ideal conditions it’ll grow from a seed to 6 meters, 20 feet, in four months. It makes a fine paper – the Declaration of Independence was written on it. It makes a quality fabric and strong rope. Hemp bricks can be used in construction, oil from the seeds makes a clean biodiesel and it’s a more efficient producer of ethanol than corn. It also can be made into plastic and the seeds are a nutritious food. All in all a magical plant. It should be noted that while hemp has had the THC bred out of it, the plant that produces bud is just as good for producing hemp. It’s all in the way it’s grown. Grow them close together and you get long stalks with few leaves and buds; give the plants lots of room and you get fat ones with lots of bud.
It’s a magical medicine in some cases. Glaucoma is one of the best examples. One conservative country woman’s experience was the impetus for Oregon legalizing medical marijuana in the 80s. She had a serious case of glaucoma and was due for an operation on a Monday morning. She’d heard about weed’s medicinal properties – she lived in a county that was also home to a good number of hippies – and figured she had nothing to lose by trying it. She started smoking on Friday night and kept on all weekend. When she went for a pre-op checkup the doctor looked at her and said she was fine and needed no operation. She contacted her state legislator, a conservative Republican, and he became a strong advocate for the law change. (As a caveat, it doesn’t work in all cases of Glaucoma.) It also works miracles on epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. You can see a video on the net of a man with uncontrollable shakes from Parkinson’s trying pot for the first time; in a very short time he stops shaking.
There are suggestions that Thailand may soon make medical cannabis legal, an important first step in ending the insane drug war in which SE Asia is one of the worst actors. Several countries in the region – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines – execute drug offenders, sometimes for piddling amounts. Fifty grams of heroin in Singapore is a mandatory death sentence. Singapore is the worst: as an example of its ultimate assholishness a young couple returning home from a vacation in Australia was drug tested upon arrival and each received two years in prison for their terrible crimes of smoking pot in a foreign country.
With so many western jurisdictions legalizing recreational pot, maybe it’s time for Cambodia to take the lead in our region in easing up from it’s now quasi-legal status – happy pizza restaurants – to at least decriminalize. A land of indulgence with cheap tobacco, alcohol and pot is one of its best attractions for both expats and travelers. I see no indication that access those pleasures has been a problem.
Well, I must admit indulgence can go too far. It’s easy to drink yourself to death here and it happens with regularity. Add relatively easy access to hard drugs and if you’re bent on ending it all you can OD any time you want. That also happens with regularity, but as I’ve said repeatedly, everybody has a right to their own poison. For sure people need to be educated to the dangers of what they’re doing, but in this case it’s the expat community that should take the initiative to remind people of the sad potential of ending it all for those who don’t necessarily want to die but don’t realize the ultimate dangers.
If you take Portugal’s experience as an example, it’s actually best to make all drugs legal. Since they did that ten years ago, there’s less crime and fewer deaths from ODing. The atmosphere in our region is not ready for such drug laws, but education is much better than repression and incarceration
Cambodia is one of the easiest places to live and enjoy life. Entertainment is one of its strong points. Letting people without a lot of money stay here leaves room for typical musicians and artists, who rarely are flush, to ply their trades. And the country is enriched by their gifts.
It’s time for Cambodia to join the world’s more advanced nations and ease up on drug laws to go along with cheap booze.
We’re here to enjoy life!