Earlier this month in Washington state, the county of Grays Harbor arraigned 50 Chinese nationals in court after authorities cracked down on a major black market grow network. Despite dealing with a language barrier that originally had the court communicating via Google Translate, authorities in Washington have been able to piece together a bit of the story.
“Many of them were brought here under somewhat false pretenses,” County Sheriff Rick Scott told The Centralia Chronicle. “They were led to believe they were going to be growing marijuana, and that this was legal here in Washington, and that they would be compensated for what they were doing.”
The cannabis was being cultivated across “dozens” of homes around the county with more than 32,000 plants being netted in the sting, the Chronicle reported. According to officials, investors would come in and scoop the houses with all-cash purchases, and then flip the homes into grows.
The sheriff also noted that police believe that the grow workers who were taken into custody were brought to Washington from China under the impression that they would pay off the costs of getting to the United States after the crops had been sold.
“That’s clearly just a form of human trafficking,” Scott said. “They’re indentured to the person that brought them over here.”
This information was all pieced together by the one certified court translator sent from Seattle, as the Chinese nationals who were arrested spoke various different dialects of Mandarin and Cantonese. The day after the arrests were made, the county prosecutor decided to let 31 of the suspects go and told them they’d be in touch if they were proven to be more involved in the operation than they appeared to be.
Thirteen individuals are still in custody, believed to have been more heavily involved with the operation.
The Marijuana Policy Project’s Morgan Fox told Cannabis Now that he doesn’t think that legalization is the reason at something like indentured servitude would take place in a state’s black market — rather, it’s the lack of legalization in other states that allows such activity to occur.
“Other states need to catch up. It is impossible to completely eliminate the illicit market, but as long as the marijuana market is solely illicit in some places, there will be incentives to break the law for profit,” Fox said. “I also think the fact that these [people] were caught is an indication that law enforcement in Washington is concentrating on serious crime and illicit factors of the marijuana market, now that they aren’t forced to waste their time on regulated producers.”
Fox also said it is important to note that this abhorrent practice is not limited to the illicit marijuana market by a long shot. Other frequent examples of industries that have high instances of indentured servitude and human trafficking are the massage, textile, prostitution (considered sex trafficking), food service and housekeeping industries. Fox said he has “been hearing similar stories” about people who are forced to drive hundreds of pounds of drugs across the country, or commit other crimes, under threat of harm to their family.
Unfortunately, the problem of indentured servitude in the cannabis industry is not limited to the United States. According to a report in the Irish Examiner, two Vietnamese men were smuggled into Ireland, one in a shipping container. One of the men, Ngog Toan Vu, told officials that he had paid a Chinese man to travel to Ireland from Vietnam in the shipping container. Vu said that he left Vietnam after a gang overtook his barber shop, and that he paid his life savings of roughly $40,000 to get to Ireland. When he arrived, Vu said he was taken straight to the grow where he’d lived for nearly two months. Vu said he had thought he would be working on an actual farm, not an indoor one. The other man in the shipping container said he had been told he would be a chef in Ireland.
The judge who oversaw the case against the two men in Irish court delayed the sentencing of the two men until Irish authorities could investigate further.
“Both [men] became involved in relation to this grow house by reason of desperation and a certain amount of coercion,” the judge said.
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