Another Kind of Gold: An Introduction to Marijuana in Papua New Guinea

By Halvaksz, Jamon; Lipset, David | Oceania, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Another Kind of Gold: An Introduction to Marijuana in Papua New Guinea


Halvaksz, Jamon, Lipset, David, Oceania


Cannabis sativa, or marijuana, has circulated throughout the world for several thousand years (Abel 1980). Today, the drug is widely transacted in the insular Pacific, where it began to enter local consumption and circulation in the early 1980s. (1) In turn, it has been fed back into the global economy through the informal economy and, to a limited extent, through international trafficking. Pacific states, while supporting the World System, condemn and sanction marijuana and are supported in this stance by international treaties. However, marijuana remains a morally ambiguous and especially problematic presence in the region. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the efficacy of the state's response has been to make local communities critical sites of regulation and debate about the value of the drug. As such, marijuana seems to have constituted a new moment in the contradictory dialogue between indigenous Pacific, state-based and global assertions of moral agency and meaning. In the rapid spread of this drug through regional contexts, we may read a more complicated power relationship than was instituted during the previous arrivals of drug-bearing foreigners, such as those who brought betel nut and kava prior to Western contact, or the European masters who introduced twist tobacco in the colonial era. (2) Foster (2002) has argued that engagement with market consumption and bureaucratic forms of competition may be viewed as part of the process of nation-building in PNG. By contrast, the consumption or transaction of marijuana in a sense both subverts and engages the citizen with the nation-state.

However, little or no ethnographic investigation, fine-grained or otherwise, has been done on either this or the many other problems that may be raised in connection with cultivation, consumption and traffic of marijuana in PNG, much less elsewhere in the Pacific. Widespread as it may have become, in this introductory essay we can therefore do little more than offer a few glimpses of its presence in contemporary PNG, e.g., in the past 20-25 years. What we are able to do is this. We survey the legal context of its production and circulation both in PNG and throughout the Pacific. We assess how the drug has been depicted in other Pacific states. While our primary focus is on PNG, our point in offering these broader perspectives, of course, is to begin to outline political and comparative issues. Our overall goal is to encourage rigorous discussion of the relationship among society, the state and global capitalism that the drug constitutes, in addition to the many other, rather smaller-scale problems it raises about the construction of and debate about its meaning at the local-level.

STATE-BASED AND INTERNATIONAL REGULATION

Laws regulating cannabis in the Pacific are linked both to a history of colonial administration and more recent efforts arising from international treaties. During the colonial period, Pacific Island peoples were subject to the same regulations as the states that ruled them. While increasingly independent, the legal structure of the postcolonies continues to adhere to conventions signed by their former governments. In comparison to other Pacific states, Papua New Guinea has thus far been less responsive to marijuana's growing presence. Here we consider some of the reasons for this.

Formal recognition of cannabis as a global problem dates to the International Opium Convention of 1925. While largely concerned with the suppression of opium in East Asia, it also banned export of cannabis to countries where the use of that substance was not customary. Effectively, this made cannabis illegal throughout the Pacific since it was not cultivated or consumed prior to colonization. Subsequent treaties, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 (United Nations 1961) and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971 (United Nations 1971), set guidelines for regulation of all narcotic and psychotropic substances, and thereby established cannabis as illegal among the states that agreed to these guidelines. …

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