Pacific islanders seek big profits from budding medical cannabis trade

Prianka Srinivasan
2023.12.01
Suva, Fiji
Pacific islanders seek big profits from budding medical cannabis trade Josateki Korovulavula holds a mobile phone showing a picture of his Kadavu Island cannabis crop, in Suva, Fiji, Oct. 31, 2023.
Prianka Srinivasan/BenarNews

Mention Kadavu Island to anyone in Fiji and it likely conjures up one word: Marijuana.

The volcanic island – which lies south of the Fijian archipelago, about halfway between Tahiti and Sydney, Australia – is notorious for its illegal cannabis crops, often grown in hidden clumps between lines of taro leaves.

Drug-busts are common. This year alone, Fijian police have uprooted more than 10,000 cannabis shrubs on the island.

But farmers on Kadavu are hopeful they can soon grow their crops of weed out in the open. Fiji’s government is planning to legalize medical cannabis exports after being approached by investors in Australia and New Zealand. Its Department of Trade is undertaking a feasibility study into the industry.

Josateki Korovulavula, who heads the Kadavu Farmer’s Association, spent more than five years in prison after police raided his marijuana plantation in 2012. He said he hoped to “bring [his] reputation back” by participating in Fiji’s budding medical cannabis industry.

“If only the government can see what we’ve seen,” the 40-year-old farmer, who claims to make thousands of U.S. dollars a month selling marijuana on Fiji’s black market, told BenarNews.

“They’ve branded me as a ganja farmer, but I want to prove to them I’m not wrong.”

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Fijian police officers are pictured at a marijuana plantation on Kadavu Island, Fiji, in this undated handout photo. [HO/Fiji Police Force]

Western demand for cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals has fueled business interest in the Pacific, where favorable climates and soil conditions have made the region a target for commercial-scale growers.

Governments in the region are hoping to tap into the $40 billion global cannabis market by passing laws to entice foreign investors.

‘Cash cow’

Vanuatu recently became the first Pacific island nation to allow the cultivation of medical cannabis, licensing two international companies to grow and manufacture the plant for sale overseas.

Meanwhile, the Cook Islands’ prime minister’s office said earlier this year it would embark on a study tour of New Zealand, where medical cannabis is legal, to guide the development of its own medical marijuana industry.

Fijian businessman and lobbyist Mosese Waqanika calls medical cannabis a potential “cash cow” for his country. He has been in talks with investors in Great Britain and Singapore to support his company once the industry is legalized.

“I believe, in a few more years’ time, other Pacific island nations will be joining the same bandwagon,” Waqanika said.

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Josateki Korovulavula, who hopes to participate in Fiji’s budding medical cannabis industry, is pictured near Suva, Oct. 31, 2023. [Prianka Srinivasan/BenarNews]

Proponents say the quick-growing cannabis crop can provide a valuable injection to Pacific economies struggling to recover from the impacts of a changing climate. Traditional export crops like coffee and sandalwood can take years to regrow when floods and cyclones strike, whereas cannabis can be harvested nine weeks after planting.

“Hemp is a renewable crop that's coming in every single year. It's in, it's out and the farmer has his cash,” said Australian business owner Andrew Smith of Tafea Industries. His company has partnered with the Vanuatu government to develop the first legal medical cannabis plantation in the country.

But in a region where extreme weather is frequent, risks remain for the new crop. Two devastating Category 5 cyclones have hit Vanuatu this year alone, and such storms have the potential to decimate expensive cannabis operations, Smith said.

“With the regularity that cyclones are coming through at the moment, you could get crops wiped out every couple of years,” he said.

Domestic use illegal

On the streets of Suva, Fiji’s capital, the illicit marijuana market is barely visible. Based on seizures by police, it’s worth at least tens of millions of U.S. dollars annually.

Boats that dock in the harbor, ferrying passengers between islands, are also used to offload packages of weed to the city’s dealers, police statements say. At nighttime, young Fijians pass around a joint in between swigs of an indigenous psychoactive drink called kava. In some villages, marijuana leaves are boiled in coconut oil to create a skin treatment.

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Police say marijuana is ferried on passenger boats traveling from Fiji’s islands into Suva harbor, pictured here, Nov. 2, 2023. [Prianka Srinivasan/BenarNews]

All these activities are illegal, and Fijians face heavy fines and prison time if caught with marijuana. Fiji’s government has a zero-tolerance policy on any use of the drug by locals, and any products made from domestic cannabis farms will be strictly for overseas customers.

“Whilst we are keen to develop this [medical cannabis] industry, we also are very mindful of the sensitivities involved,” Manoa Kamikamica, Fiji’s minister for trade, said at the launch of public consultations.

“We will demonstrate to the people of Fiji that this is going to be handled responsibly.”

To do this, the government has said it will employ monitoring technology such as cameras on cannabis farms to ensure plants stay out of the hands of locals.

Drug abuse fears

Opponents of Fiji’s medical cannabis industry, such as Kalesi Volutabu of Drug Free World Fiji, worry that such precautions are not enough. Her non-profit organization, which is affiliated with the Church of Scientology’s Foundation for a Drug-Free World, works in rural Fiji to educate villagers on the risks of drug abuse.

Volutabu said Fiji’s feasibility study into medical cannabis has already given the “green light” to illegal marijuana farmers, who have ramped up production in recent months.

“We are literally saturated with marijuana in this country,” she said.

“I can totally understand why Fiji wants to look at [medical cannabis] for the economy. But not right now, Fiji is not ready for that because our system is not strong enough.”

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Kalesi Volutabu of Drug Free World Fiji, pictured in Suva, Nov. 1, 2023, says the island country is “saturated” with marijuana and even limited legalization would send the wrong signal. [Prianka Srinivasan/BenarNews]

Pacific countries are already grappling with a rapid rise of methamphetamine and cocaine use, driven by new international drug trafficking routes through the region. Volutabu believes that legal marijuana plantations will send the wrong signal to Fijians and cause addictions to “skyrocket.”

“We can’t even police the drugs right now in this country,” she said.

“So how can you police cannabis?”

Fiji’s government, which is expected to finalize policy recommendations in the coming months, has said it will only allow foreign companies with “relevant experience” to grow cannabis in the country, to ensure a “heightened level of control” around the industry.

Nonetheless, Korovulavula from Kadavu Island remains optimistic that Fijian farmers like him will soon be included in the government’s plans.

“These are God-gifted plants. You can’t put God in a box, or it will explode.”

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