Irresponsible betel nut chewing and the stains this creates has long been a public health issue in Marshall Islands even before the enactment of the betel nut law in 2010 that prohibits the sale of the stimulant drug.
Add Covid-19 and the issue resurfaced in Nitijela — only this time on steroids. So much so that President David Kabua issued an emergency executive order on April 30 to ban of importation of betel nut to the country and Cabinet endorsed a bill to permanently ban betel nut imports for action by Nitijela.
This week, Nitijela entertained the proposed legislation to ban the import of betel nut indefinitely.
To date, only Kwajalein Atoll practices a total ban on betel nut. Violators caught smuggling the contraband or even seen with a single nut are banned from the US Army military installation. Captured shipments on Ebeye are confiscated and burned — more so far this year in comparison to previous years, courtesy of Mayor Hirata Kabua and newly appointed revenue officer Michael Domingo.
Then, Tuesday this week, a public hearing was held for the proposed ban with Ujae Parliament Member Atbi Riklon chairing the Judiciary and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The committee was met with a unique group that countered the bill with an alternative proposal, one that if entertained, would form a committee consisting of designees from the offices of the chiefs of police, quarantine and customs.
Samuel “Batti” Lanwi and Bernard Adiniwin requested the committee consider their proposed alternatives, adding that the group follows the current law and lack of enforcement by officials is the root cause of illegal sales.
“We import our own, we don’t buy on island and we don’t sell,” Adiniwin told the committee. “Why can’t police confiscate betel nut from the stores or quarantine and customs stop bulk-sized shipments weighing 400 to 600 pounds?”
“We know what personal consumption looks like: our group gets weekly 30-pound shipments compared to a person receiving 400 pounds,” Adiniwin said.
In supporting the current proposed bill, Women United Together Marshall Islands reported children as young as 12 and 13 years of age are users and that chewing was never part of Marshallese culture.
Despite claims that chewing and spitting betel nut juice might accelerate spread of Covid-19, no tangible data and evidence was provided to the committee by supporters of the bill. The Ministry of Health and Human Services did not participate in the hearing.
Riyad Mucadam questioned the validity of singling out betel nut and not including alcohol, tobacco and cocaine to the equation.
Riyad added the ban would undermine the rights of those already in compliance with the current law.
“I agree with Riyad’s logic,” committee member, and Jabat Representative and Minister of Justice, Labor and Immigration Kessai Note said in response to Mucadam’s elaborate argument on how baseless the proposed bill presents itself.
“I agree with what Riyad said about lack of enforcement,” Note continued. “We can pass laws all we want but to what extent if no enforcement takes place?”
“What is stopping the police from enforcing the law on betel nut sale,” committee member and Parliament Member for Aur Hilda Heine asked. “Where is the data showing past citations done by police?” Heine said.
“I don’t have the data on me but will return to office and find them,” was the reply from the National Police representative Ablos Jelmak.
Speaker Kenneth Kedi questioned the legality of President David Kabua’s executive order banning the import of betel nut.
Kedi demanded the office of the Attorney General speak on the matter, adding there are separation of powers and for the AG to determine who makes laws, a group of people or the government.
In the same breath, Kedi showed support for the proposed bill banning betel nut imports, citing the importance of public health and safety.
He argues the way the executive order came to be did not go through proper procedures.