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Opponents slam UN’s ‘unfair’ research on Palau’s pot problem

Palau students

Palau students … their high school was used as the basis of a “bizarre” drug study. Photo: PMC archive

The United Nation’s World Drug Report for 2012 has come under fire after claiming the Micronesian island nation Palau has the highest rates of marijuana use in the world.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Josh Martin

Palau government officials and Pacific academics have slammed this year’s UN World Drug Report, giving the island nation a bad rap as incorrect and skewed because of poor data gathering.

The data indicated almost a quarter, 24.2 percent of Palau’s population had used the illegal drug in the past year, and had world media dubbing the country as the world’s “cannabis capital”.

Palau’s Director of Education Emery Wenty said the UN had asked the Education Ministry to do surveys which focused on youth, so the results did not represent all of Palau.

Palau High School

Palau High School … used as a model for the country’s entire population. Image: Wikipedia Commons

“The surveys covered about 63 percent of students from one public high school .To extrapolate that to the entire population is not right,” he said.

Wenty said the UN’s methods were questionable because the surveys sample was skewed toward a lower socio-economic and younger group.

“It is not fair to have the entire population classified in the same category as students from the public high school whose responses could be questionable,” he said.

The Chief of Statistics and Surveys for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Angela Me said she stands by the data within the report.
School surveys
Speaking from Vienna, Me said for smaller countries like Palau there was no reliable way to target adults for research, so school surveys were used. Palau’s survey data was collected in 2007.

“From the school surveys we use statistical calculations and modelling to extrapolate the data for the entire country’s population.”

“The model takes in consideration the fact that there is a higher use of substances at youngest age which declines when students get older,” Me said.

“It’s based on the age-related change observed in countries where data are available for both young and adult populations.”

A Youth Officer in Koror, Palau’s capital, Toni Mandour, said the report surprised him and was exaggerated and at odds with his experiences with youth in the country.

“Some people use it, but I wouldn’t say more than 5 percent. We have penalties in place if you are caught, people  get arrested.”

“For one joint maybe not, but for larger busts definitely,” Mandour said.

Hazy research
University of Auckland Pacific Studies Centre senior lecturer Dr Steven Ratuva said the UN research methodology was disappointing.

Dr Ratuva said the researchers failed to realise youth in the Pacific might distort the self-reported data because they wanted to seem “rebellious” to their peers.

“This self-reporting is open to exaggeration. Youth in the Pacific often exaggerate for social status and this could explain the result,” he said.

Dr Ratuva said that for Palau’s youth drugs were not always seen as negative.

“These false responses are very challenging when trying to research and solve public problems. The UN didn’t realise this and got a flawed result,” he said.

The UN office maintains they did take into consideration many statistical factors.

“Despite the calculations and modelling, because of uncertainty we published the range of 19 to 28 percent of the population having used marijuana in the past month. That is still high,” Me said.

Young respondents
She said the report was indicative of an issue and could be used by Palau’s policymakers, despite its young respondents.

“This data was collected in 2007, so these former high-schoolers are now adults. The population clearly is using it.”

Director of Education Wenty said the report was indicative of what he experienced daily.

“We already have strong regulations at the school, and in law, about drugs. Students can be expelled, but records show there are few incidents.”

Wenty said the curriculum was thorough in teaching the consequences of drug use.

Bad habit?
The top three territories in the UN’s report were all Micronesian island states, with the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam reporting rates of 22.2 percent and 18.4 percent.

This echoes older research carried out in Micronesia by the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, published in July 2006’s Drug and Alcohol Review.

The research found “the illicit use of cannabis has spread to Micronesian and Melanesian groups, especially young people, since the 1970s. Cannabis is now the drug of choice because of its availability and low cost.”

The National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse chief executive Myron Quon said the UN’s report was worrying but not surprising.

“Our own research found around half of all families are living at poverty level and unemployment rates are very high. These environmental factors are often linked to marijuana usage.”

“The high usage of marijuana is symptomatic of the broader issues involving overall community wellness, poverty and individual health.”

Quon said the report was evidence that a community based approach was needed to tackle a substance that is often abused because it is seen as natural.

Betel nuts
“High usage of betel nuts and tobacco is linked to high usage of marijuana as well,” said Quon.

However, Dr Ratuva dismissed the idea that marijuana was seen in the same cultural light as betel nut chewing and other natural substances.

“The framing of marijuana use should not be framed the same way as kava or betel nut, because marijuana destroys people whereas kava is an anti-depressant,” he said.

“Outsiders will think, ‘of course’ Palauans chew betel nut in the morning, drink kava at lunch and smoke marijuana after dinner,” Dr Ratuva said.

Marshall Islands Journal editor Giff Johnson said despite this report’s controversial methodology, Palau was not free of illegal drug issues.

“Historically, Palau has seen a fair amount of marijuana growing and use, as have the Northern Marianas, because both have large land areas where crops can grow away from scrutiny.”

Johnson said it remained to be seen if Palau’s international repuataion was tarnished after the release of the “bizarre” report.

Co-operative approach
Dr Ratuva said a co-operative approach to research would quash any feelings of distrust of outsiders from Palauans.

“False responses  from Pasifika sometimes come from a distrust of outsiders who just drop in and demand information.

“It’s important [outside researchers] immerse themselves, especially for big issues like drug abuse,” he said.

Marbour, speaking from Koror, summed up contrasting views between foreigners and Palauans on this controversial report.

“I think the results would be totally different if the UN came back and did thorough research and a countrywide survey,” he said.

Josh Martin is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.