Fiji Police’s fight against drug related harm

by Jake Quinn

A Kiwi living in Fiji examines the Fiji Police drug unit’s multi-pronged effort to reduce drug related harm in their communities, beginning with a brief history of drug use in the island nation

Setting the scene

Drug use is not new to the beautiful Fijian Islands. Alcohol, kava and marijuana are part of daily life for many Fijians. Illicit drugs are much less common, although Fiji Police believe their use is on the rise. Because of Fiji’s location as a major port in the heart of the Pacific, the country faces both illicit drug trafficking and increasing use, especially amongst the young.

Traditionally, ethnic Fijians – known as iTaukei – and indo-Fijians (who make up around 37% of Fiji’s 827,900 people), as well as the myriad of other ethnicities that form Fiji’s colourful, at times strained, multiculturalism, have used various forms of phycho-active drugs during their rituals and ceremonies. Indentured labourers and riley seafarers bought marijuana and hemp traditions from India and elsewhere to Fiji when they arrived to work the sugar plantations and to trade.

Like it is throughout the Pacific, kava (the beaten down root of a narcotic pepper plant, mixed with water) is widely consumed by iTaukei and, over time, indo-Fijians have also slowly adopted kava drinking rituals.

As the sun sets over Fiji the ubiquitous “clank” sound of kava being stomped into a fine dust can be heard as young men pound the “grog” in preparation of the evenings drinking session around the Tanoa bowl. Like elsewhere, kava drinking is still a male dominated affair in Fiji, although by no means exclusively so.

Marijuana grows easily in Fiji’s sunny, wet climate. Many of the country’s 322 islands, coated with coconut trees, tropical forest, and thick vegetable patches, are difficult to access or patrol, creating ideal conditions for growing and cultivating the plant. Increasingly, marijuana is used as a cash crop, particularly during times of economic hardship or financial strife within a community.

Gateway and harder drugs

Assistant Superintendent Sakeo Ganivatu is the head of the Fiji Police drug unit based in Central Division HQ in the capital, Suva. He says marijuana and glue sniffing are the most common illicit drugs used in Fiji. He says drug use exists everywhere in Fiji, it is not something confined to the bigger urban centres; “it is in rural areas just as much as in urban areas” he says.

I asked him if harder drugs were also an issue in Fiji. Sakeo says they are increasingly coming into the country.

Sakeo believes that kava and alcohol are gateway drugs. He says their use “gets young ones into substance abuse” and establishes harmful patterns of behaviour. He explains that drinking kava everyday “can be fatal for young people, it makes them lazy, they don’t work, then they follow the easiest path in life and then it invites [the use of] other drugs”.

I asked Sakeo about people using kava and alcohol together, having heard anecdotal reports of this. “Generally you would drink grog one night, alcohol the next, rather than together” he says. He did however think that kava and alcohol use carried serious social costs. He was concerned with the link between them and violent crime.

Fiji Police work with communities on causes of drug abuse

Assistant Superintendent Sakeo Ganivatu comes across as a kind man with a big heart. He sees the best way to reduce drug use – he’s mostly talking about marijuana, glue sniffing and alcohol here – is through improving the overall environment that people live in. This means targeting a range of community based programmes that address social, economic and educational short-falls.

Sakeo and his team have done a lot of work with squatter settlement communities in Fiji’s capital, Suva. He recruited around 20 volunteers to do a survey of the inhabitants of the squatter area and then from that data created a plan to try and help them.

One of his initiatives was to get young people playing more sports in safer environments. There was nowhere (other than on the road) for the kids to play, so he has been trying to get bulldozers in to clear a rugby field for them. He wants kids to have alternatives to sitting around sniffing glue.

His team has worked with local communities to improve other social and economic conditions. Sakeo’s team advocated for road construction in areas where lack of resourcing and transport, and hence isolation, has made bad situations worse for people.

They have also been involved in giving workshops on parenting and with the establishment of a fish farm project. This suit of measures hopes to create chances for young people to be kept away from glue sniffing and marijuana, and this is more likely with the community’s and school’s direct involvement and support.

Pilot ‘pride and self-discipline’ programme in schools

Sakeo was keen to talk to me about his Catch them Young programme, which kicked off in June 2011. He says the in-school component of it has been a huge success in reducing drug related complaints from teachers to police and he wants it rolled out all over Fiji.

Piloted at Gospel Primary in Samabula, Suva, the programme was designed to be the school based element that would complement the other community based programmes on offer. Targeting year 7 and 8 students, Catch them Young uses police or military style drill techniques such as marching. Sakeo says these drills are the “types that cadets do” and aim to “install [self] discipline” in the kids.

This aspect of the programme is not about punishment, it’s about pride. Sakeo explains that eventually the kids graduate the programme in a ceremony that involves a display of their newly honed police drills. He says the idea of it “is to teach them how to resist temptation, and increase discipline”. He says that there was a rapid drop in the number of kids in year 7 and 8 caught with drugs, down to zero.

Before you baulk at the concept, keep in mind that Fiji is a country with a proud military culture and tradition. Giving kids an opportunity to emulate drills, while marching in a uniform might seem odd to a New Zealander, but in Fiji this type of activity is deeply associated with respect and tradition. It is not surprising then that the approach has so far been a success.

The programme includes an awareness element where police officers present to students on the dangers of drug use and how it can affect their lives and school work. His team has presented the pilot programme to the Fiji Police Commissioner who has signed it off for expansion all over schools in Fiji. Now they just need to find a way to resource the programme as up till now it has been run through volunteer time from the Police drug unit, an already well under-resourced outfit.

Little known about party drug scene

Sakeo told me that Fiji Police’s drug unit simply does not have the resources to monitor drug use in Fiji’s numerous late night clubs and pubs. I know from personal experience, as an expatriate living and working in Suva, that the night clubs seem to never shut. An early morning cab ride through downtown displays a confronting array of drunks and party-goers just wrapping up their evening’s entertainment, just as you are off on the early flight to Nadi.

Sakeo does not know how common illicit drug use is as very little statistics exist. What he could tell me was that more women are being caught with drugs, especially since the early 2000’s, where a small spike in arrests was observed. Prior to this time there were very few drug related arrests of women.

The numbers still remain low. Statistics provided to me by Fiji Police show that just 5 women were arrested for drug related offences in the first quarter of 2011, with 2 arrests for the same period in 2012. This is despite the same data set suggesting that 88% of Fiji’s population are engaging in drug use of one form or another.

Sound statistical information is rare when it comes to drug use in Fiji, and unfortunately so is funding for the drug unit’s community and in-school programmes. Fortunately, the same could not be said for the dedication and enthusiasm shown by the unit and its volunteers.

Jacob Quinn, from Hamilton, NZ, is a communications officer and freelance journalist living and working in Suva, Fiji.

*This article appeared in the June 2012 edition of the NZ Drug Foundation’s monthly magazine, Matters of Substance. Visit the foundation’s website here and become a member here to receive the magazine.