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  • Writer's pictureBy Zaldy Dandan

Guess who won the war on drugs

Saipan — Thirty years ago, the banner story of Marianas Variety, the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, was “Top Officials Named as Shabu Users.” Shabu is one of the slang terms for methamphetamine or “ice.”

The report read:

“A number of government officials, including those holding key positions in the government, have been named by a federal agent as among the growing number of people known to be users of…crystal methamphetamine,” Variety reported.

“Investigations conducted by a joint team of federal and local authorities reveal that these public officials, although not involved in the importation and distribution of the deadly drug, are known to be drug dependents.”

Who were these officials?

Variety didn’t name names, but it mentioned that the meth users included firefighters, police officers, teachers and counselors, utility workers, health department employees.

“For over a year now,” Variety added, “the attempt of federal and local law enforcement agents to crack down on drug traffickers in the commonwealth has resulted in the prosecution and conviction” of one CNMI immigration officer. Another case involving a Customs officer “was settled before any decision could be made.”

In May 1991, authorities found meth, with a street value of $2.2 million (worth about $4.3 million today), inside an oxygen tank. “Federal drug enforcement agents say…it was the largest ice haul confiscated in an American territory. Marijuana was considered the drug of the 80s in the commonwealth. In 1988, authorities started to encounter ice which was then smuggled in small quantities. Today, ice is the CNMI’s ‘silent and growing menace.’”

Authorities said meth, unlike marijuana, “is reusable and the chances of detecting it is almost nil. ‘Ice is everywhere,’ a special operation agent said. It is smuggled into the CNMI through boats, planes, cargo ships, and there are also fishermen who moonlight as drug smugglers. Most shipments originate from the Philippines.”

Variety noted that ice trafficking “is a lucrative business…. Authorities say [ice] is…sold for $1,000 to $1,500 [worth $1,900 to $2,900 today] a gram whereas last year [1990] it was sold at a low of $500 to a high of $700 (about $988 to $1,300 today).”

(Early last year, CNMI Customs announced that it had seized “ice” hidden in silicon tubes that were found in a “general merchandise” contained from China. The estimated street value was $500 a gram.)

And so in 1991, the CNMI government enacted a “much-awaited bill that would seek to eradicate…drug and substance abuse” in the commonwealth. Public Law 7-42 was signed by the acting governor during the closing day of the Second Annual Drug Control and Substance Abuse Prevention Workshop. “This is the kind of tool we need to fight the drug problem,” Variety quoted the Customs chief as saying, referring to P.L. 7-42 which included “stiff penalties against users and traffickers…while also strengthening law enforcement capabilities…by giving more flexibility to stop drugs and eradicate illegal substances at the CNMI’s ports of entry and beyond.”

That’s right. That was how the U.S. “eradicated” alcohol abuse. By prohibiting it. Remember?

Prohibition was so “effective” that five years after its implementation, H.L. Mencken wrote:

“Not only are crime, poverty and disease undiminished, but drunkenness itself, if the police statistics are to be believed, has greatly increased. The land rocks with the scandal. Prohibition has made the use of alcohol devilish and even fashionable, and so vastly augmented the number of users. The young of both sexes, mainly innocent of the cup under license, now take to it almost unanimously. In brief, Prohibition has not only failed to work the benefits that its proponents promised in 1917; it has brought in so many new evils that even the [public] has turned against it.”

But, he asked, “do the prohibitionists admit the fact frankly, and repudiate their original nonsense?”

Of course not. “On the contrary, they keep on demanding more and worse enforcement statutes….”

Several years ago, a federal public defender on Guam told Variety that in his 14 years there, “he has seen no evidence that the war on drugs is being won or that drug usage is being curtailed.”

Moreover, “demand is so high and profits are so tempting that focusing simply on cutting supply is hopeless.” He said “[t]here are no limits to the human imagination when it comes to smuggling illicit drugs.”

Recently on Saipan, a lawmaker expressed concern about the presence of illegal drugs in the Corrections facility. Worse, some Corrections officers themselves were using illegal drugs.

Oh no!

From a news item posted on the Marshall Project Journalism and Justice website in November 2019:

“I guess I was a little naive when I was first locked up, thinking it must be hard to obtain drugs and get high while incarcerated. But to my shock, it was as common or more so than on the outside. (I’m probably in the minority in here because I don’t use, it's that pervasive.)”

The title of the article: was “The Never-Ending Drug Hustle Behind Bars,” and the writer was serving time at the Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia.

In March 2021, it was reported that “Texas Prisons Stopped In-Person Visits and Limited Mail. Drugs Got in Anyway.”

From the website of Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consulting team:

“In every prison system across the [U.S.] drugs are smuggled in by inmates and guards alike, and alcohol is brewed somewhere within the facility…. This is what happens when you lock up people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Alcohol and drugs find their way into prison.”

Imagine that.

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety, and author of three books available on Send feedback to

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