Common Stimulants in Papua New Guinea

The term ‘stimulant’ here means a group of substances that people use to alter their perception, mood, consciousness or behaviour. The substances covered (tobacco, betel nut, marijuana, coffee, tea, locally brewed alcohol, kava and other psychoactive plants) are not all stimulants in a medical sense, but this name is less emotive than terms such as ‘narcotic’ or ‘drug’. The more precise term is ‘psychoactive drug’. These include drugs used as anaesthetics, painkillers, psychiatric medication and for recreation. Globally, the most common recreational psychoactive drugs are alcohol (in the form of beer, wine or spirits), nicotine (tobacco), caffeine (coffee, tea and many aerated soft drinks), betel nut and marijuana.

Six plant species are grown in sufficient quantity in PNG to be classified as ‘important’ stimulants. Tobacco and betel nut are the most widely consumed. Because it is illegal to produce or sell marijuana, it was not possible to collect reliable data on its distribution. It is also illegal to sell locally produced alcohol without a licence, but consumption of tobacco, betel nut and kava is not illegal. There is negligible or no use of other recreational drugs such as amphetamines (speed), heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or LSD by Papua New Guineans in PNG.


Tobacco grows in most environments in PNG, from sea level to 2400 m. Most of the rural population live in locations where tobacco is commonly grown. A large proportion of the adult male population, fewer women and many adolescent children, smoke tobacco. People use home-grown tobacco, and self-rolled and factory-manufactured cigarettes made from imported tobacco. Consumption of home-grown tobacco is probably much greater than that of manufactured cigarettes, but accurate data are not available. Locally grown tobacco is usually smoked as cigarettes rolled in newspaper, or rolled tobacco leaf. It is sometimes smoked in bamboo or wooden pipes and very occasionally eaten (for ritual purposes). It is uncommon on atolls and is not grown where most of the population are members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Towards the top of its altitudinal range it is often grown under the eaves of houses, presumably to protect plants from the cold.

Distribution of tobacco in Papua New Guinea

Commercial tobacco production has a long and not particularly successful history in PNG. The German-owned Neuguinea Kompagnie grew up to 240 ha of tobacco for export at several sites near modern Madang between 1888 and 1902, but rapid losses of soil fertility and pests and diseases caused the crop to be abandoned. Tobacco was also grown as a minor export crop on a number of plantations in East New Britain and Bougainville in the 1930s; for example, 10 ha of plantation tobacco was grown in the Territory of New Guinea in 1933.

Tobacco was grown by two companies in the Madang and Port Moresby areas from 1958 and in the Goroka area from 1960. In 1977 a total of 90 ha of estate tobacco was grown in the Goroka area, the Markham Valley, and on a small estate in the Saidor area of Madang Province to supply a factory in Goroka manufacturing cigarettes, twist tobacco and coarse-cut tobacco products for the domestic market. Estate production in the Goroka area ceased in the late 1970s, and large-scale commercial tobacco production in the Markham Valley ceased in the 1980s.

Tobacco was promoted as a cash crop for villagers in Eastern Highlands Province between 1970 and about 1978. By 1971 there were about 150 growers in the Bena Bena and Asaro valleys. In 1975 an area of 97 ha was planted to produce flue-cured tobacco (used in cigarette manufacture) by 500 village growers in the Goroka and Asaro areas. Village growers, dissatisfied with prices paid by the buying companies, ceased production for cigarette manufacture in the late 1970s. The proportion of locally grown tobacco used in manufacture was small, even in the mid 1970s. In 1977 only 3% of PNG requirements were grown locally, with the rest imported. Cigarettes for domestic sale are currently manufactured by British American Tobacco (PNG) Limited at a plant in Madang using imported leaf.

Betel nut

Betel nut (Areca catechu) grows in most lowland environments from sea level to 1100 m. It is grown by more than half the rural population. This figure understates the proportion of adults who consume betel nut because significant quantities are traded into the highlands, where it does not grow. Betel nut is usually consumed with the catkins, leaves or stems of the lowland betel pepper plant and less commonly with highland betel pepper, together with slaked lime made from cooked and crushed seashells or coral. People sometimes chew betel nut on its own. It is an everyday substance and is commonly given as a small gift, but is also used in more formal situations, such as ceremonies.

Distribution of betel nut in Papua New Guinea

Betel nut was domesticated in South-East Asia and introduced to PNG some thousands of years ago. Production has increased rapidly in recent decades, partly for local consumption, but especially for sale in urban centres and the highlands.

The supply is continuous throughout the year, but varies seasonally. In general the best supply occurs between April and August and the worst supply between September and December. There are some regional differences and the supply is less seasonal in Madang and more seasonal in Lae. The best supply in the Madang area occurs in January–March and this is the period of poorest supply in the Port Moresby area. A disease of unknown cause is destroying betel nut in the Markham Valley. It started to spread in about 2003 and the supply had almost ceased there by mid 2007.

Betel nut is a major cash crop in many lowland locations and significant quantities are transported to Port Moresby, Lae, other urban centres, mine sites and the highlands. The 1996 Household Survey estimated production at 49 000 tonnes per year and consumption of betel nut, pepper and lime at 11 kg/person/year, with consumption levels similar in both urban and rural locations.

Lowland betel pepper

Lowland betel pepper is grown by more than half the rural population. It is only consumed with betel nut or highland betel nut. The catkin, leaf and vine are used, with the catkin being the part most commonly used in PNG and the leaf and vine only used when the catkin is not available. Lowland betel pepper grows from sea level to 1000 m altitude. Its distribution is very similar to that of betel nut, although it does not grow to the altitude that betel nut does. Catkins sold in Kainantu market, which come from Karkar Island and the Markham Valley, are available throughout the year, but the supply varies seasonally with the best supply in January–March and the poorest in September–October.

Lowland betel pepper was introduced to PNG from South-East Asia thousands of years ago, almost certainly with betel nut. Production has increased in the lowlands in recent decades and in most locations
has probably exceeded population growth as betel nut consumption has increased. In some locations where it has become a significant cash crop there has been a marked increase in production so that catkins can be sold in distant urban or highlands markets.

Highland betel pepper

Highland betel pepper is grown by about a third of the rural population. The leaves, and occasionally the catkins, are consumed with betel nut or highland betel nut. Highland betel pepper is grown in mountainous areas over an altitudinal range of 1150–2300 m. It is widespread in Eastern Highlands, Simbu, and parts of Southern Highlands provinces, and the Menyamya area and Huon Peninsula of Morobe Province. Its distribution is similar to that of highland betel nut and the two items are commonly sold together in highlands betel nut markets. The best supply of highland betel pepper leaves in Kainantu market occurs in September–November. This is the period of poorest supply of lowland betel pepper catkins and it is likely that leaves of the highland species are sold to make up the shortfall of the preferred lowland catkins.

Highland betel nut

Highland betel nut (Areca macrocalyx) is used in a similar way to betel nut, but is considered inferior as the fruit is smaller. About a sixth of the rural population live in locations where it is planted and consumed, two-thirds of whom live in Eastern Highlands and Morobe provinces. It is most commonly planted in Eastern Highlands Province, particularly in the Kainantu area, and in mountainous parts of Morobe Province in the Menyamya area and the Huon Peninsula. It grows over an altitudinal range of 1100–1950 m. In the Kainantu area nuts are available throughout the year, with the best supply in October–December. This pattern complements that for betel nut. It is likely that more highland betel nut is sold in highlands markets when betel nut from the lowlands is in short supply.

Distribution of highland betel nut in Papua New Guinea

Highland betel nut is an indigenous species and was probably domesticated in New Guinea after the introduction of betel nut from South-East Asia. Consumption of highland betel nut may have declined over the past 20 years as the supply of betel nut from the lowlands has improved. Highland betel nut is commonly sold in Kainantu market and sometimes in other highlands markets. It is occasionally transported to lowlands markets, particularly Lae, when betel nut is scarce.


Marijuana is usually smoked as a cigarette. Both the flowering bud and leaves are used, with the former containing a higher concentration of the active ingredient (THC). Information on production and consumption is limited as production and sale of marijuana is illegal in PNG. Nevertheless, it is likely that a high proportion of young men in the main producing locations grow or consume the plant. Marijuana grows from sea level to about 2600 m in PNG, but is rarely grown in the lowlands. Most production occurs in the highlands from about 1400 m to 2200 m altitude in locations where rainfall varies seasonally. These are parts of Eastern Highlands, Simbu, Western Highlands and Central provinces. Marijuana is particularly common in the driest part of the highlands. Plants grown in seasonally dry highland locations are said to have a higher concentration of the active ingredient than those grown in coastal areas.

Marijuana was probably introduced into PNG in the mid to late 1960s by young expatriates. By the late 1970s it was being used by highlanders. Production and consumption has expanded since then. By the early 1980s it was readily available in Port Moresby and other lowland centres. By the early 1990s expatriate field workers in Eastern Highlands and Simbu provinces were regularly offered marijuana in rural areas; reports of sightings in village plantings became more common; social workers in the highlands commented on the negative impact of heavy use on young men in some highland locations; and some young highland village men spoke openly of how much they used. By 2007, marijuana cigarettes were being offered for sale openly or barely concealed in Goroka, Kundiawa and Mount Hagen markets.

It seems that significant quantities of marijuana are grown in at least four provinces; that many young men use it and some use large enough quantities to have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing; and that it is readily available in urban centres. As a result, marijuana is an important cash crop for some villagers. It is unlikely that marijuana is imported into PNG but it is probable that some is exported from PNG to Australia where it is known as ‘New Guinea Gold’ among some users. Marijuana is implicated in reports of weapons trading from Australia to PNG across Torres Strait.

Coffee, tea and soft drinks

Coffee, tea and many aerated soft drinks contain caffeine, which is a psychoactive substance, although they are so common in most societies worldwide that they are not considered as drugs. Although coffee and tea are produced in PNG for the export market, consumption levels are low. The 1996 PNG Household Survey recorded combined consumption of tea, coffee and Milo (a manufactured chocolate drink) of only 1 kg/person/year in urban areas and a few hundred grams per person per year in rural areas. People consume more soft drink, particularly in urban areas, where consumption in 1996 was 12 kg/person/year and 3 kg/person/year in rural areas. Most coffee consumed is imported ‘instant’ powder. A very small quantity of locally roasted Arabica coffee is consumed, particularly by expatriates and in up-market restaurants. Some locally produced tea is sold on the domestic market and very small quantities are imported. Aerated soft drinks are manufactured in PNG from locally grown sugar and imported flavours.

Locally brewed alcohol

With the exception of coconut ‘toddy’ on some atolls, alcohol was unknown in PNG until introduced by Europeans in the late nineteenth century. Consumption by Papua New Guineans was prohibited until the early 1960s. Alcohol is now legally able to be consumed in PNG, with beer being the most common alcoholic drink. Consumption levels are low by global standards, with beer consumption recorded as 4 kg/person/year in
1996, and use higher in urban than in rural locations. Beer is brewed in Lae and Port Moresby from imported ingredients. Some spirit drinks are made and sold in PNG, based on ethanol (alcohol) manufactured at Ramu Agri-Industries Ltd and imported flavours. Other alcoholic beverages, including wine and spirits, are imported in small quantities.

An alcoholic drink (toddy) is made from the sap collected from the fruit stalk of coconut palms on Mortlock, Tasman and Nuguria islands in Bougainville Province. This appears to be a pre-European custom. The fermented sap produces a refreshing drink with a low alcohol content of about 2–3%. There are reports that coconut toddy was made in the lower Fly River area of Western Province, where it is possible the technique was introduced by Polynesian missionaries in the 1890s.

In a number of locations young men make an alcoholic drink known as ‘jungle juice’, ‘JJ’ or ‘Yawa’, by fermenting fruit, such as banana or pineapple, with yeast and sugar. This custom was possibly first introduced to the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain Province by Japanese troops during the 1940s. The Yawa banana variety is commonly used for this purpose because of its high sugar content. Increasingly, the fermented drink is distilled to produce a potent spirit known as hom bru. During the civil war on Bougainville in the 1990s the practice was widespread and distilled spirit is now sold at roadside stalls there. It is also sold in some (and perhaps many) betel nut markets in the highlands. If not done correctly the distillation process can result in toxic products and reports of blindness and death among hom bru users occur from time to time. The spirit has a high alcohol content and consumption is associated with irrational and sometimes violent behaviour.


Kava is consumed as a beverage made from the chewed, pounded or grated root of a shrub that is related to betel pepper and black pepper. Chewing is the most common method of preparation. Once the kava root has been chewed and mixed with water, it is strained into a bowl or coconut cups and drunk. It is used in a very limited number of locations in PNG and by less than 1% of the rural population.

Kava was domesticated in Vanuatu and introduced from there to some locations in PNG. It was a pre-European crop in the Madang area and possibly in Manus Province. The area of greatest kava consumption
in PNG was Manus Province, in particular Lou, Baluan, Pam, Rambutyo and the Fedarb islands. By the 1990s it was used only on Baluan. It was reportedly used in coastal areas north of Madang, the Rai Coast, some inland areas near the Ramu River and on Karkar and Bagabag islands. It is now used only in a limited number of villages in Madang Province. Kava was also consumed in parts of Western Province on the Great Papuan Plateau near Nomad, near Balimo and in the region from Daru to the Papua (west New Guinea) border.

Consumption has declined in recent decades. Some research has been conducted on kava by NARI scientists interested in developing the crop for the export market, but there is no commercial production. An export market for kava developed in the Pacific in the late 1990s, with demand in Europe and the United States, but kava was exported from PNG only on a very small scale. The PNG Spice Industry Board reported in 2001 that small quantities were grown and processed in several locations in Madang and East Sepik provinces. The dried kava was exported to Japan and Australia. Reports of liver damage from overconsumption of dried kava have caused European and American markets to be restricted.

Other psychoactive plants

There are numerous reports of the use of other plants, mushrooms and fungi for their psychoactive effect. Most are indigenous to PNG but some are more recent introductions. They are used during various rituals and to induce visions or dreams. Some have been documented as having hallucinogenic properties. More than 60 species are reported to be used including mushrooms, fungi, and the fruit, leaves, sap, rhizomes, roots, bark and nuts of various plants. Some plants that have edible parts, including ginger, pandanus nut and castanopsis nut, are also reported to be used as psychoactive substances. A Datura species that has been used for this purpose has resulted in unintentional poisoning on a number of occasions. There is no reliable information on current usage of other psychoactive plants in PNG. However, it is likely that these plants were used in limited amounts in the past, certainly much less commonly than betel nut and tobacco are now used. It is also likely that their use has declined in recent decades in more accessible parts of PNG.

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