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MAJURO, 18 MAY 2020 (MARIANAS VARIETY) — As hard drug use has escalated in the Marshall Islands, government leaders are expressing increasing concern over the problem, with Justice Minister Kessai Note announcing formation of a drug task force earlier this week in a parliament session.

In what may be a first for the Marshall Islands, police with a court-approved search warrant searched a vessel and passengers who arrived Majuro Friday from an outer island. The search came up empty, but law enforcement authorities said they would continue efforts to identify and intervene in drug selling in the capital.

Announcement of a new task force and the police search followed a series of events that have put the spotlight on the growing problem over the past month. In a session of parliament late last month, an opposition member criticised the government for lack of law enforcement on drugs, citing an assault on an investigative reporter for the weekly Marshall Islands Journal that was drug related. The local newspaper has carried numerous reports since early April about the ease with which people can purchase crack cocaine “rocks” around Majuro, hospital staff reports of an increasing number of patients seeking services for drug-related mental and physical health problems, and suicides by four men in a six-week period during April and May, suicides that family members said could be linked to drug use.

Suspicion that a large volume of cocaine washed into Maloelap Atoll earlier this year and is being distributed slowly into the Majuro market motivated the police search of a fisheries vessel returning from the remote outer island. Friday’s search did not come up with any evidence to support this theory. But over the past two decades, numerous instances of professionally wrapped packages of cocaine washing up on remote outer islands have been reported in the media, with most turned into law enforcement. These have ranged from over 40 pounds to upwards of 100 pounds of the white powder drug.

“Any vessel operating here is an opportunity for drug movement,” said Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority Director Glen Joseph, following last Friday’s search. “All ship operators need to step up to ensure (their vessels) are not abused for transporting drugs.”

Law enforcement officials said they are increasing the tempo of action against drug dealing in capital city.

Some local observers see the explosion in hard drug availability and use on Majuro as a locally generated phenomenon that, unlike past drug situations, may not be based on a limited quantity of cocaine that washed up on a beach somewhere.

According to local newspaper reporters who have interviewed numerous local residents, acquiring crack cocaine in Majuro is as easy as buying betel nut at local stores: users know various pick-up spots, whether it’s at a gas station, a taxi driver or a neighbor who deals drugs. The cost is US$5 for a near-gram sized “rock” of the drug.

The four suicides that occurred in Majuro from 11 March to 27 April broke with the long-term norm in the Marshall Islands of suicides by boys and men ranging in age from their teens to their 20s. These suicides break from this long-established pattern because the four men’s ages ranged from 31 to 54, and family members and friends said each of the men had a history of hard drug use.

In addition to the rash of suicides by older men over the past two months, patients with numerous complications stemming from possible usage of crack cocaine are being seen more regularly at Majuro hospital, according to mental health division workers.

“Users are brought into Majuro hospital with seizure episodes, intracranial hemorrhages (bleeding in the brain), confusion, hearing voices and violent thoughts,” said a health official…. PACNEWS