American Samoa, a small island territory halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, is the southernmost outpost of the United States. It’s also one of the most conservative in terms of drug use, due to strong familial ties and Fa’asamoa (Samoan Way) that limits the use of drugs within their culture.
In 1999, the American Samoa legislature, spearheaded by former police commissioner Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli, enacted a bill that was, and still is, one of the harshest drug laws in the nation. For those caught with any drug, including a single joint, there is a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years without parole and a $5,000 minimum fine.
The impetus for this drastic increase in jail time was a reaction to the growing use and trafficking on the island of methamphetamine, commonly known as ice. Cannabis use is more prevalent, though usage rates are about half that of the mainland United States.
There have been many high-profile cases, highly publicized as propaganda against drug use, that illustrate the draconian nature of the strict drug laws. In 2007, a delegate representing the Coastal States Organization, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., flew into America Samoa for the U.S. Coral Reefs Task Force meeting where she was promptly sniffed out by a customs dog. Customs officials found a small amount of cannabis in her possession for personal use. She was fined $5,000 and forced to leave the island.
This sentence is common for visitors entering America Samoa found in possession of small amounts of cannabis. Former American Samoa Assistant Attorney General Lisa Teesch-Maguire, who resigned her post after threats to her life when she successfully prosecuted a rape case, told Samoa News she believes marijuana possession should be a misdemeanor or infraction, and the territory should not be wasting resources on the prosecution of minor marijuana possession cases.
“Clearly, there is a much more dangerous methamphetamine problem in the Territory, and the Territory needs to eradicate it before it gets out of control,” Teesch-Maguire said. “Methamphetamine is a horrible drug, and generally results in dangerous violent crime, burglaries, and theft.”
For farmers on the island caught growing cannabis, it’s usually another story. Filipino Savusa, a 39-year-old father of two, was arrested this month after a raid on his property discovered 2,876 cannabis seeds and 61 plants. He was charged with unlawful possession and intent to distribute, felonies punishable by up to 14 years in jail. But, due to mitigating factors and letters from his pastor and forgiveness from his village council (a big deal in the territory largely run by village chiefs called Matai), Supreme Court Justice Leilani Tuala Warren sentenced Savusa to two years and 10 months with a $4,000 fine.
For visitors to American Samoa, it’s best to stick to trying the local Kava and avoid illegal substances altogether until legislation is passed to lessen penalties, though change is unlikely anytime soon.