American Samoa’s plan to help police combat meth faces questions

Joyetter Feagaimaali'i
​​Pago Pago, American Samoa
American Samoa’s plan to help police combat meth faces questions Matafao Peak dominates the skyline above Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa, Oct. 3, 2009.
Torsten Blackwood/AFP

A plan to expand police powers of arrest to frontline government officers in American Samoa to combat an increase in drug use has met opposition from some senators.

Government leaders say airport security officers, homeland security agents and customs officers should have the power to arrest suspected drug users and traffickers as police struggle with an increase in the smuggling of methamphetamine into the U.S. territory. 

A bill to expand powers of arrest was introduced by Gov. Lemanu Mauga in November but is now stranded in the Senate pending more research. 

“I have been in the Department of Public Safety for over 30 years and in my career as a law enforcement officer for the territory, there is a drastic number of arrests made in relation to drug cases,” said Police Commander Falanaipupu Taase Sagapolotuele.

“It's evident the territory has a drug problem and over the last six years, the government established a Drug Task Force, but no solutions are coming out from that task force,” he said.

Pacific island countries are a key link in the drug trafficking networks run by Asian, Mexican and South American crime syndicates that deliver methamphetamine and cocaine to lucrative Australian and New Zealand markets, according to a Lowy Institute analysis published last year. 

The Pacific “drug highway” has spilled over into local illicit drug consumption and sometimes production, it said. 

Sen. Malaepule Fuena Moliga said he was wary of expanding powers of arrest. Each government department has specific responsibilities and duties and should not intrude into police work, he said.

“If anyone breaks the law, they need to report it to the police officers and let them do their job,” said Moliga, a former prison warden. 

Police in American Samoa say they have been making drug arrests almost every week in a territory that has a population of only 50,000 people. 

“We don't have any evidence there is a lab to make meth on the island, therefore it’s being smuggled into the territory through our borders,” said Sagapolotuele.

Simultaneous raids by armed officers on homes in the villages of Petesa and Fagaima in late December had a typical haul of marijuana and meth valued at about U.S. $10,000 and glass pipes used to smoke meth.  

Police data from the April-June quarter of 2022 showed 56 drug arrests.

American Samoa is facing increasing problems involving the importation and sale of drugs, Mauga, the territory’s governor, has said.

“The government needs the flexibility to address evolving law enforcement needs,” he said.

American Samoa has one police officer for about every 415 residents, a low ratio compared with wealthier countries, according to Director of Homeland Security Semo Veavea Samana.

Low police numbers underscore the reality of why the department merits the power of arrest, to alleviate the strain on other law enforcement agencies, he said.

The unimpeded flow of narcotics, he said, “is eroding the cultural fabric of our communities.”


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