Koror, Palau — “It’s relaxing,” Jack (not his real name) says, puffing weed in his porch. The odor of marijuana smoke wafts in the neighborhood, but no one frowns. The neighbors seem used to it.
“No, it’s not addictive. I can go on for days, even months, without smoking and I don’t get any withdrawal symptoms,” Jack says.
A longtime pot smoker, Jack says this recreation doesn’t exactly hurt his pocket. “You can buy a stick for $5.”
Anyone who smokes pot in Palau knows where to go to get high. Marijuana remains illegal in Palau, but it does not exactly take a detective to find its distinct odor around Koror.
“There are probably more crimes related to alcohol consumption than marijuana smoking,” Jack says.
Under Palau law, marijuana is classified as Substance I drug. Trafficking of this substance is punishable by 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 second offense.
The United Nations' 2012 World Drugs Report ranked Palau as the world’s top cannabis user. 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.
However, it is not inaccurate to say that marijuana smoking is socially acceptable to a certain degree in Palau. It’s an open secret that buying weed is ridiculously easy.
There are no indications that recreational pot is likely to be decriminalized anytime soon, but local lawmakers are cognizant of marijuana’s medicinal properties. In 2015, Delegates Masasinge Arurang and Lucio Ngiraiwet introduced the Medical Marijuana Act, which sought to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, specifically for treatment of debilitating conditions.
They cited the need for free and unburdened communication between doctors and their patients, and to open discussion on possible risks and benefits of medical marijuana.
The 9th Palau Congress’ Health Committee conducted a public hearing on the bill and filed it for first reading. But it was shelved at the House of Delegates and never made it to the Senate.
Police Director Ismael Aguon said he has no problems with marijuana for medical use, but legalizing it for recreational use is another story. It can raise a lot of questions, he said. “Are policemen, firemen, doctors, pilots, school bus drivers, taxi drivers, heavy equipment operators going be allowed to use recreational marijuana? Has there been a determination when or when can we say a person is not under the influence as compared to the blood alcohol content of a person intoxicated with liquor? How do you know or what is the period after smoking can you say a person is no longer high on marijuana?”
Asked why it is easy to purchase marijuana in Palau despite its prohibition, he said, “tolerance, acceptance versus law enforcement.”
Then there is the issue of prioritizing resources. “The sense that I get from the people is law enforcement should spend more time and resources investigating serious crimes and hard drugs rather than marijuana which is seen as a less serious matter and crime,” Aguon said.
He also observed that the legalize-marijuana movement in Palau is fired up by the trend in Guam and the rest of the United States. Palauans have been more accepting of planned policy reforms on marijuana.
But not everyone is on board. In a recent Women’s Conference, a group of traditional women introduced a resolution opposing the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.