Does abundant supply of drugs lead to heavy consumption?
A Papua New Guinea case study

Dr. Pamela Watson PhC., PhD. Pharmacist/anthropologist

This paper describes a community which has freely-available, abundant drug supplies yet where use of the drugs is moderate. Biwat is a Sepik River society whose people produce and distribute betel (Areca catechu) and, to a lesser extent, tobacco. Although the community is technologically simple and has very little access to modern methods of transport, Biwat displays some of the drug-related phenomena found in state-based societies: drug crops are replacing food crops as the major agricultural activity; wealth and power are significantly linked to drug production and distribution; and the community is dependent upon these processes for the reproduction of its social life. In circumstances in which controls of supply would contradict social imperatives to produce, drug consumption appears to be successfully constrained by controls on demand.

There are two reasons to examine drug use among tribal and/or acculturated peoples: the obvious one is to understand the dynamic role of drugs in small scale communities; a second motive is that information about drug use in these groups can often help us get a better perspective on the way we use drugs in our technologically sophisticated, state-based societies. I take this second approach, with a description of the production, distribution and consumption of two drugs, betel nut and tobacco, among the Biwat people of Papua New Guinea. In Biwat, everybody has the opportunity to produce and trade drugs; indeed it is mandatory to do so. Yet despite the resulting huge surpluses of betel and tobacco, actual consumption levels appear quite moderate. I argue that Biwat experiences are relevant to the current debate on decriminalisation of illicit drugs.

The Biwat people number about 1200, and they live in four villages on the banks of the Yuat River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Their land is very fertile and high-set, an exception in a region which is otherwise a vast lowland swamp. This circumstance allows the Biwat people to be self sufficient in food, and to have a regional monopoly of tobacco and betel nut. Control over the production and distribution of these drugs has been an important source of power for Biwat people for generations.

The term "betel use" actually refers to a mixture of three ingredients, the nut of the betel palm (Areca catechu), some part of the Piper betel vine and lime. On the whole there is general agreement about the major subjective effects. Small doses result in a euphoric feeling, copious red saliva and an increased flow of energy. Larger doses produce a sedative effect in which reaction time slows markedly. While each of the three major ingredients contributes to the total physiological consequences, alkaloids present in the betel nuts themselves are probably the most significant in terms of psychoactive properties.

It is not known at what historical point Biwat began producing and trading betel and tobacco, but by 1929, and possibly very much earlier, Biwat was experiencing some of the situations which we think of as contemporary problems. Reproduction of the social life was dependent on drug production and distribution; production of drugs had become the major agricultural activity; and inter-regional trade in drugs was an important source of wealth and power. A summary of the role of tobacco in this period can be found in Margaret Meads account of the Biwat in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). (Note that Mead refers to the community as the Mundugumor, the name formerly used by the Biwat people to identify themselves).

Sixty years later, drug production and inter-regional trade is still the economic basis of the social life, although betel nut is now more significant than tobacco (Watson 1987). Drugs procure the same categories of things today as they did in 1929: that is subsistence items, the capacity to participate in community exchanges and the opportunities to become leaders. However the content of each category is different. Social prominence is no longer associated with theatrical performances and head-hunting. Nowadays leadership requires membership in business groups, managerial experience, and joint ownership of major items like Toyota trucks. Trade in betel nut provides the cash for these experiences.

Biwat people say that work has replaced head-hunting as a high prestige activity, and for this reason betel production is important in its own right in establishing leadership. Ownership of vast numbers of betel palms is living evidence of an individuals capacity to work hard, to generate cash and to participate in Papua New Guinea development. The symbolic importance of betel palm production is reflected in the practice of planting betel in both suitable and less suitable soils, planting at the time of year when growth is assured and again when it is doubtful, and in the rule which makes betel the only perennial which the unmarried may plant. As a consequence, betel production is far in excess of consumption or trading needs.

This is graphically illustrated by examining the holdings of three Biwat leaders. Each of these men, together with their retinues, needs about 100 betel palms to supply their personal consumption needs, but each man together with his family has planted nearly 5000 palms. This excess is all the more remarkable given that all members of these households have access to the betel nut planted by their forebears. As a consequence of the cultural stress on production, betel palms can be found almost everywhere in Biwat territories, and in some areas they have completely replaced other trees.

The abundance of betel means that the entire community could exist in a state out of touch with every day reality if that was the choice. Despite this, consumption appears very moderate. In three months I noted only four occasions in which betel use produced marked alteration in levels of consciousness among adults. In neighbouring societies children and young adolescents chew betel without censure, but only once did I see a Biwat child using the betel mixture (an action which is easily discerned given the bright red saliva produced). Although occasionally individuals complained about feeling lazy or being unable to work marked betel addiction seemed to be absent. Addiction is usually indicated by anxiety about continuity of supply and I saw no signs of this among the extended family with which I lived.

How does the Biwat community control drug use? In theory drug use can be moderated by either controlling supplies of the drug or by moderating demand, and many societies use a mixture of the two methods. For example, in 1977 drug restrictions in the United States were estimated to be a 60/40 mixture of supply and demand controls (Stolz 1982). But in Biwat it is not possible to control supplies given the long-standing social imperative to produce and trade drugs. Instead, the community has a number of mechanisms which limit demand. People are aware that the physiological effects of the betel mixture range from the stimulation produced by small quantities through to marked alteration of consciousness which follows consumption of larger amounts. The stimulant effects of betel are welcomed and associated with increased ability to work or fight, high­prestige activities. In contrast, betel drunkenness is associated with loss of control and inability to perform these vital activities.

Other than its association with work, betel use is not significantly linked to the expression or representation of a wide range of ideas, values and goals. Jessor (1978) argues with regard to alcohol that the greater the number of positive social reasons for use, the higher will be the level of individual consumption. Accordingly, the fact that Biwat people, unlike those of many other Papua New Guinea communities, do not use betel in dispute settlement, in death or marriage ceremonies, in invitations, in sorcery, in love magic, to name some frequent uses found elsewhere seems likely to contribute to the creation of a moderate consumption pattern.

The situation in Biwat has relevance for debate on decriminalisation of illicit drugs. A principal argument against decrimin’lisation is that if controls over supply are removed, drugs will be much easier to obtain and the higher the availability, the higher will be their use. However, the Biwat data demonstrate that this argument is not invariably true. It is possible for a community to use drugs moderately even in the presence of unrestrained drug production and distribution. That is, controls over demand can be effective in some situations even when controls over supply are absent.

This is important to acknowledge because it is clear that attempts to control the supply of illicit drugs in Western societies are largely unsuccessful at present. Moreover, the advent of designer drugs threatens to make supply restrictions even more problematic. Price (1989) notes that a single chemist in one weeks work can make enough synthesised opiate to supply the whole of the United States, and store it in three shoe boxes.

With controls over supply becoming more dubious daily, we need to focus upon the alternative, and consider what kinds of social restraints over demand we might need to develop or emphasize. In this connection it is worth noting that demand controls in Biwat are not mysterious tribal rituals, inapplicable to Western conditions. The Biwat mechanisms - that is a realistic appreciation of the range of physiological effects produced by a particular drug, the linking of moderate use with prestige activities and high use with failure, and restrictions on the number of positive socialt messages associated with drug use, - are measures which are compatible with technologically sophisticated, state-based societies like our own.

In summary, one argument against decriminalisation claims that decriminalisation would make drugs highly available and this would lead to greater use. Information from Biwat demonstrates that this is not always correct. Biwat is a community in which moderate drug use co-exists with huge drug surpluses. The community relies on controls over demand to achieve these consumption levels. Given that our attempts to control drug supplies are becoming increasingly unworkable, the Biwat data suggest that we too should focus on the alternative, and place more importance on developing extensive and successful controls over demand.

I am grateful for the help provided by the Walter and Eliza Hall Travelling Scholarship.

Jessor, R. 1978 Psychosocial factors in the patterning of drinking behaviour. In J. Fishman (ed.) The bases of addiction: report of the Dahlem Workshop on the Bases of Addiction. Abakon: Verlagsgesellschaft.
Mead, M. 1968 [1935] Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies. New York: William Morrow.
Stolz, P 1978 The Australian Foundation on alcoholism and drug dependence: a national perspective. In A. P. Diehm , R. F. Seaborn and G .C. Wilson (eds.) Alcohol in Australia. Brisbane: Academy Press.
Price, J. 1989 Designer drugs: present usage, future problems. Channel 89 ADFQ 3:27-31.
Watson, P 1987 Machines of the mind: an anthropology of drug use. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Queensland.