By VICKY BAUNKE
The cultivation and consumption of marijuana in the country is illegal and is discouraged.
While some argue that it generates income for rural people, its harmful effects and contribution to lawlessness, especially in rural villages without police presence, far outweigh its usefulness.
During the state-of-emergency in the country, police in the Eastern Highlands province have been busy uprooting mature cannabis plants, among other illegal items.
According to scientific research, marijuana (also known as cannabis) is a psychoactive drug used for medical purposes.
The main psychoactive part of marijuana is tethrahyrocannabinol (THC) and is one of the 483 known compounds in the cannabis plant alone which is dangerous and harmful to humans.
This means that once it is consumed by school-aged children or youths, it is capable of destroying the entire immune system, slowing down the thinking process and hindering the reasoning capacity.
The Eastern Highlands rural and urban community policing, senior Sergeant Naomi Yobai, drawing from her experience in addressing law and order issues in the districts, said that there are three contributing factors that lead to law and order breakdown in communities, including:
nDisobedience to elders and community leaders;
nSmoking of marijuana; and,
nConsumption of homebrew and alcohol.
Goroka police station commander, Chief Inspector Tony Sevese, confirmed that many complaints lodged at the police station are related to drug abuse.
The Eastern Highlands criminal investigation unit last year embarked on a journey to declare Eastern Highlands a ‘marijuana-free’ province.
The unit has been conducting its program of eradication district-by-district and require support from various stakeholders, including district administrations, MPs, churches and the communities.
In November last year, a raid in Goroka led by Chief Insp Sevese and the investigation unit’s officer-in-charge, senior Constable David Yaplin, uprooted and destroyed cannabis plants with a street value of almost K1m.
“Considering the different sizes and maturity of the plants that were uprooted, the street value of the drug increases when sold in other provinces,” Const Yaplin said.
More than 1300 marijuana plants were uprooted and destroyed by police, who also confiscated a homemade firearm and 20kg of dried marijuana valued at K10,000.
Following investigations by police, 10 vehicles moved into the Messiyufa and Kamusi area in two separate batches at around 3am.
The operation covered an extensive community popularly referred to as the 7-in-1 villages located in the Akameku area.
While vehicles were moving into the area around 4am, mothers and couples with bag loads of vegetables over their heads walked along the unsealed road hoping to catch a ride into town to sell their fresh produce. The community is one of the main suppliers of fresh produce to the Goroka main market.
After the raid on Friday, local leaders invited police back into the area to hold discussions with youths, who uprooted and handed over cannabis plants to police and apologised for their acts.
The reconciliation was initiated by Messiyufa community leader, Dominic Gahane, involving seven villages, including Akameku, Messiyufa and Kamusi.
Mr Gahane and the leaders gave their assurance to police that a ‘rausim marijuana’ taskforce had been appointed to monitor and report anyone involved in the activity to show the community’s commitment to work in partnership with police.
Elders in the area told police that cannabis use had painted a bad image for the community.
Chief Insp Sevese cautioned people cultivating drugs in the province to refrain from doing so.
“This is something that has not been experienced in my years of policing here,” he said.
“Usually, after police visit a community, we don’t get invited back to be apologised to.
“Law and order is the responsibility of everyone and it is good that you learn from the bad to be better.”
He has made an appeal to the public in Eastern Highlands to come forward with any information of those who are engaged in the activity.
Const Yaplin said there would be more raids conducted in the province.
“Eastern Highlands is known as one of the major suppliers of marijuana in the country and this is a challenge for local police,” he said.
“The cultivating, consumption and trade of marijuana has become one of the contributing factors to lawlessness leading to major crimes like rape, murder and tribal conflicts.
“We want to send out a warning to people that there is police manpower on the ground to deal with those cultivating drugs.
“Suspects arrested will be charged and appear before court.”
Const Yaplin said there can be better rehabilitation opportunities given to those who are engaged in the activity to provide solutions and awareness on the effects of cannabis to communities but that can only be achieved through partnership with police, districts, NGOs and other stakeholders.
Growers and sellers
After speaking to several growers, it was noted that revenue received from the trading of marijuana is substantial and pays for expenses and school fees of many families.
A father-of-nine from Kainantu, who has being cultivating and selling marijuana, confessed that it has sustained his family over the years, with his older children now adults.
Given the traditional expectations of PNG society, where every member has obligations, the income from selling marijuana helps to meet these obligations.
“I have paid not only for my children’s school fees but for other family members too,” he said.
“The money we get from the trade sustains our family and is fast money that is no match to our normal vegetables sales.
“I make about K20,000 in a year and that money was used to buy a K5000 solar system that I use to supply electricity to the village, provide lighting, charge phones and for other electricity purposes.
“This solar power system is also used during church gatherings to provide lighting.”
He said there has been a demand for the drugs from the area because quality produced is high.
“If legalised, it has the potential to boost living standards, especially at the village level,” he said.
While the smoking of marijuana has become common among people and school-aged children in both rural and urban settings, it has left many suffering from mental health problems.
The Post-Courier spoke to a cannabis user who has been arrested countless times for the possession, sale and smoking of cannabis on the streets of Goroka.
The young man (who requested anonymity) is now earning his living honestly.
He said that it has come to a point in his life that he has decided to make ends meet in a different way.
“The first time I went to prison after committing an offence, I came out and did the same thing again and again because that was the only way I could make fast money for myself.
“But the continuous rehabilitation has made me realise that there are different opportunities out there that I could make use of instead of always ending up in prison.
“I am happy where I am now, (and) the one thing I learnt is to get myself busy everyday with something but every now and then I come across peers who, at times, tempt me back into the habit.
“I feel disgusted when I see school boys and students trying to smoke drug (marijuana) because they are not well-informed of the mental and long-term consequences and effects of smoking marijuana.”
Eastern Highlands Provincial Health Authority
According to the Eastern Highlands provincial health authority, there are no available statistics of cannabis users or substance abusers in the province.
Acting director of curative health services, Tony Basse, said that diagnosing cannabis abuse is usually from history and cannot be proven by laboratory testing at this time.
“Sadly at this moment, we don’t see patients at the regional hospital for substance abuse (cannabis),” Mr Basse said.
“There are occasional instances where we manage acute cases, while chronic ones are sent to Laloki for further assessment.”
He said a recent recruitment for the psychiatric hospital includes a psychiatrist, who will be responsible to manage drug-related cases.
“Until then, we don’t have available statistics specific for cannabis abuse,” Mr Basse said.
“It is a growing concern in our communities but with a psychiatrist on board, strategies will be developed to address that.”