By Eoghan Olkeriil Ngirudelsang
‘It’s high time we stop hiding’
Legalize pot movement gaining ground in Palau
Koror — Palau is currently seeing a rise in public interest in the legalization of marijuana. A movement spearheaded by the Belau Cannabis Society has picked up speed with the goal to amend the Palauan National Code to allow the use and sale of cannabis for medical purposes. An extensive bill has also been introduced in the Olbiil ra Kelulau, the Palau national congress, proposing the regulated use of medical marijuana.
“Everywhere you go, people are using marijuana; it’s time we stop hiding and make this legal so we can be free to use it for medical reasons,” said Josepha Tiobech, a retired nurse and member of the Belau Medical Cannabis Society
The cannabis society comprises prominent members of the community including medical doctors, a former senator, a botanist, a businessman, a retired nurse and community activists.
“We are supporters of cannabis; we believe Palau should allow people to use marijuana,” said Joel Toribiong, a former senator.
Besides Tiobech and Toribiong, other founders of the cannabis society include Dr. Victor Yano, Pearl Marumoto, Henry Jackson, Dr. Chris Kitalong and Berrymoon Watson.
Marijuana is still illegal in most parts of the Pacific islands region, except in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, where both medical and recreational uses are allowed.
Under Palau law, marijuana is classified as a Substance I drug. Trafficking of this substance is punishable by a maximum of eight years in prison, a fine of not more than $5,000, or both (unless it less than an ounce and if the substance is just given away, then it is punished like possession. Any person found in possession of 2oz is fined $500 for first offenses, and $1,000 for a second offense.
Just the same, rampant pot smoking is common knowledge and tolerated. Buying is easy.
The United Nations' 2012 World Drugs Report ranked Palau as the nation with the highest level of cannabis use among adults per capita. The UN report said a quarter of adults use cannabis in Palau, home to 18,000 people. Local officials, however, dismissed the report as inaccurate, claiming it was based on a survey conducted only among high school students and extrapolated to misrepresent the adult population.
Previous records indicate that the use of marijuana in Palau can be traced back to the nation’s trust territory days. A 1989 congressional hearing by the U.S. House’s Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs noted that Palau was exporting some 300 lbs of cannabis per week.
In a 2009 report, titled “Palau: Detailed Assessment Report on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financial of Terrorism,” the International Monetary Fund noted that Palauan marijuana farmers produced for local consumption and also exported cannabis to Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Legalizing marijuana has since been a recurring proposal in Palau.
In August last year, a large conference was held in Palasia Hotel to discuss the medical benefits of cannabis. The event featured six guest speakers from New York and even as far as Israel who spoke at the conference virtually. A couple of inspirational speakers were also present to personally testify how cannabis improved their medical conditions.
The proposed legalization of marijuana was also among the issues that dominated the political discussions during the last national election.
Alan Seid, then a presidential candidate, advocated the cultivation and exportation of cannabis. “Imagine all the endless business opportunities that will come to our country. The possible income that our young people will acquire; the demand for cannabis is out there and we could be exporters of this plant to create wealth for our people,” Seid said in an interview. “If we start now and create some kind of a brand for Palau’s marijuana, we can be a world-renowned exporter of the plant and I guarantee that it will come with millions of dollars for this country.”
A bill to legalize marijuana is pending in Palau’s House of Delegates. The proposed measure credited the late Kathy ‘Tari’ Kesolei, “who has been a driving force in advancing public perception and education on compassion-based society wellness.”
The bill, titled “The Compassionate Cannabis Use Act” proposes the legalization of marijuana and any derivatives of it to be used solely for medical purposes. It has passed the first reading.
If signed into law, the measure would authorize licensed physicians and physiatrists to prescribe cannabis. It would also pave the way for licensed medical institutions to import, distribute, manufacture and conduct research on cannabis plants and/ or their derivatives.
The proposed use of medical marijuana would be applicable to individuals over the age of 18. Cannabis use would be allowed for minors would require a doctor’s prescription and parental consent.
The bill proposes the creation of the Belau Cannabis Authority that would regulate the industry and issue licenses. It also lists penalties for individuals found engaged in distribution and manufacture without a valid license.
“I am 100 percent sure this bill will pass the House of Delegates unanimously, but the senate will be another story and I am quite skeptical of their approval but I think the public support marijuana,” Seid said.
President Surangel Whipps Jr., however, has reservations about the proposal. “First of all this is still a drug and it does have negative effects on the body especially the brain,” the president said.