Mauritius, an island washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, is renowned for its pure white beaches and crystal-clear water. Thousands of holidaymakers and newlyweds who visit the island each year may be unaware of the degree to which cannabis and other illegal substances are used. In spite of extremely strict government restrictions, cannabis enjoys great popularity among island residents – a multicultural mix of 1.2 million people whose ancestors arrived from Africa, India, and China.
Drug use on Mauritius is not a modern phenomenon. After the abolition of slavery in 1834, this former British colony experienced an influx of Indian workers who brought cannabis to the island. At the same time, immigrants from China brought opium. These substances were used primarily for traditional purposes and were not considered a serious problem. During the 20th century, the island became a popular sea and air port, and in the 70s and 80s, availability and subsequent abuse of heroin and other “hard drugs” eclipsed the rather disciplined socio-cultural use of light drugs. Drug profiteering became an impersonal illicit ruthless business with serious negative consequences.
I personally experienced the Mauritius double standard applied to cannabis upon my arrival, when I was the only airbus passenger selected for more than one hour of thorough baggage inspection. Surely, this was just a coincidence with my dreadlocks playing absolutely no role at all according to the customs officers on duty. While two of them were carefully examining the contents of my baggage, they talked cheerfully about the issue of cannabis consumption, and at one point we were passionately discussing whether weed is better in Europe or in India, where the agents regularly traveled to see more distant family members and for “relaxation”.
“What about Shiva and Rastafarians?”
Cannabis, also referred to as “gandia” or “mass”, represents a social taboo of immense proportions in these lands. This prohibition seems quite bizarre, considering that half of the population practice Hinduism with which marijuana is closely related, used openly during many religious festivals and rituals in India, and used secretly here in Mauritius.
However, Hindus are not alone on Mauritius in associating hemp with their beliefs. There are also Rastafarians, although traditional dreadlocks are rarely seen on local African-Creoles (African origin population, mostly Christians), because of the majority population’s extremely conservative thinking connecting appearance with marijuana use and thus rendering the dredgers to the edge of society. This was confirmed by “Tony” , whom I met on the beach, where he and his family had been camping for several days during the holidays. “I work as a road crew, so I do not have a problem with my hair, but it’s true that if I wanted to find a better job, I would not succeed. “Tony” claimed that “People do not accept you here when you have this (dreads) on your head,” and his admirable look at my dreads shifts to astonishment when he finds out that I can work as a lawyer. “Perhaps our society will move toward greater tolerance, as it is with your country,” he adds. At this time, only with certain boys working with tourists as crew of ride boats and a few fishermen had dreads. “I’d like hair like yours, it’s terribly cool, but I cannot, because of family and work,” said a young barman from a Hindu family. The incredible fascination of “the white man with dreads“ is ubiquitous, and after the first few days I stop counting how many people I’ve spoken to on this subject.
I had to look for true Rastafarians in the mountains on the southwest of the island, in the Chamarel district – a well-known unofficial center of the movement. I ended up visiting an elder painter named Charles, who told me, during our earlier meeting one morning in Port Louis, that I was welcomed at any time in his place. During our long debates in his hut surrounded by a giant fruit garden, this artist convinced me that he was not merely following a fashion trend. He outlined his perception of the world, where respect for nature, voluntary modesty, and love play an incredibly important role. “You know, I do not care who comes here, I will freely accept anyone without discrimination, even a murderer. I have already met some of them, because for the Rastafarians, a prison is like home, as anywhere else,” Charles then recounted his numerous experiences behind bars for repeated cannabis-related offenses. And he’s not the only one.
Half of my new acquaintances on the island had been in prison at least once for consumption or possession. Although there clearly were more dangerous substances to monitor, including heroin and various new synthetic drugs, the security forces obsession with cannabis was breathtaking. When one of the employees of ADSU, the local drug department, picked me up hitchhiking, he confided that he didn’t understand this obsession and that he personally didn’t consider weed such a danger to the society. In spite of this belief, you could observe ADSU helicopters circulating daily in an effort to locate cannabis plantations in cane fields and inaccessible mountain areas.
The present situation has not changed much in comparison with 1999, when 2000 people were formally jailed, of which 75% were incarcerated for hemp-related acts. During that year, a concert to support decriminalization was organized, featuring Creole musician Joseph Reginald Topize, informally known as Kaya, the recognized founder of “Seggae”, a mix of reggae style and local sega music. Although the concert went smoothly, 5 people including Kaya were arrested two days later and charged with smoking or encouraging marijuana use. Kaya’s family and supporters immediately organized a collection to post bail, but police refused to release him. Kaya was subsequently discovered dead in his cell. An official report claimed that Kaya suffered a concussion after repeatedly hitting his head on jail cell bars as a reaction to withdrawal symptoms. A doctor later examined the corpse, refuted this allegation, and confirmed that Kaya had succumbed to the aftermath of repeated beatings. This killing triggered an avalanche of ethnic violence and turmoil in Mauritius, and Afro-Creoles attacked police, burned police stations, and the situation with Hindu elites got out of hand.
“We’ll take their weed in order to have bigger earnings!”
In Mauritius, where religion is linked to politics, only Hindus are in power, the measure of everything is profit, and there is a high degree of nepotism and corruption. The local cannabis witch-hunt is ruthlessly intensifying, and hard drugs including heroin and cocaine have become a type of unofficial instrument used by the ruling class to marginalize the already socially excluded Afro-Creoles. A local Coast Guard member freely confirmed to me that what they confiscate among arriving ships is just a fraction of the trafficking, and it is no public secret that most of the drugs are imported by politicians themselves by abusing their diplomatic privileges benefits during flights.
“A brighter future is not likely.”
Among cannabis users, future prospects do not look too optimistic. For several years, local lawyer and former Justice Minister Rama Valayden has been supporting cannabis decriminalization, but his efforts have seemingly been in vain. Some professional estimates state that decriminalization (possession of small doses for personal use, following the pattern of specific progressive European and American states/countries) would annually reduce Mauritius‘ judicial and prison service costs by 30%, not to mention the social benefits of keeping productive citizens out of jail. Throughout Mauritius, baseless rumors about marijuana use and possession permeate official authorities, preventing beneficial state-licensed use for medical purposes. Simply said, the political will for change is missing. Either the politicians stubbornly believe in the false narrative of strict prohibition effectiveness – in spite of data and research that clearly does not support such a strategy — or they are actually part of the drug business with no desire to reduce consumption, realistically control quality or support the health of the population.
“Consider using cannabis on the neighboring island.”
According to UN statistics, marijuana is regularly used by 4% of the population, but according to my observation, this actual usage figure should be much higher. On Mauritius, a gram can be obtained for 24-40 Euros (for cheap and good quality I recommend Chamarel). If you plan to smoke here, it is prudent to pack and bring along rolling papers and tobacco for your stay. A package of local illegal rolling papers here is about 4 Euros, and tobacco is unavailable in case you wish to mix it in joints. Possessing tobacco can also be your “official“ justification to the authorities for “importing“ papers, which could otherwise be considered illegal, along with possessing other accessories such as a bong, glass-pipe, etc. for which you could be fined up to 240 Euros. Possession can be penalized with up to a tenfold fine and imprisonment for up to 5 years. Penalties for consumption in the presence of police, cultivation or dealing could prove to be much more extreme!
Mauritius is a tropical paradise where you can, indeed smoke cannabis, but you will pay quite a bit for this natural product and have, as a result, a notable amount of stress to deal with. Caucasion tourists, considered to be the prime income source for the local economy, enjoy considerable tolerance from the authorities, but I would nevertheless recommend a visit by air or boat to the nearby mountainous Reunion Island. In this overseas territory of France, thanks to the benefits of the EU, you need only an ID to enter and you will not be harassed by pleasant French authorities for possession of local “zamal”.
Originally published in Weed World Magazine Issue 133