During the Queen of England's ten-minute opening address to Parliament last month, she described a bold new effort.
“A bill will be introduced to strengthen the powers to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking whilst improving support for victims of such crimes,” she told a sea of wigged, bowed heads.
Following the queen's comments on June 4th parliament opened debates in which a series of costumed legislators discussed a brighter future for Vietnamese cannabis gardeners.
“I welcome the news that victims who are compelled to commit crimes by their traffickers—for instance, those who are forced to tend cannabis plants—will be protected from prosecution,” Lord McColl of Dulwich said during a debate on June 9.
McColl made mention of a new plan to offer those arrested any assets seized from their traffickers as compensation for their ordeal.
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle made similar statements, calling for stronger punishments for traffickers and a propaganda campaign to let victims know they won't be penalized for seeking medical treatment at local hospitals.
Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick went even further by providing assurances that the bill would most certainly be passed, but called for further meditation on the matter.
“I am not convinced that the normal processes of time, nor this small Bill, will be measured and appropriate to do what is necessary for the scale of the issues involved,” he said.
What wasn't discussed, at all, during the proceedings was the legalization and regulation of the production and sale of pot.
Just legislate it
In May Thanh Nien News published an investigation into the UK's treatment of Vietnamese migrants drawn into the domestic cannabis boom that found British authorities frequently violated laws and treaty obligations governing their approach to these cannabis growers.
Though many anti-trafficking groups call them victims a recent study revealed that the returnees viewed themselves more like risk-taking migrants who borrowed heavily to escape poor rural communities.
The respondents all came from poor districts in the north-central province of Nghe An where families had enriched themselves by participating in the UK's indoor cannabis rush—a decade-long transformation of the island from a cannabis importer to exporter.
The UK isn't the only country with a Vietnamese pot problem. Police organizations across Europe are publicly grappling with how to subvert the Vietnamese gangs that grow something a significant portion of the population wants to smoke.
These gangs reap untold profits by exploiting an indentured (sometimes underage) workforce through threats of violence and debt-bondage.
And no one appears willing to compete with them.
Even cannabis-tolerant Netherlands (which appears largely immune from the UK's trafficked labor problem) allows criminals to grow its pot by refusing to legalize its production.
The Modern Day Slavery Bill has been in the works since December of last year and has been extensively altered and amended with the help of privately-funded non-governmental organizations who have taken it upon themselves to protect Vietnamese victims, particularly the children.
Insiders say the bill will probably go into effect some time next year.
“We didn't expect to see everything that has been included at this point,” Ryan Mahan of ECPAT UK, an organization that has remained at the forefront of advocating for Vietnamese children caught in the cannabis trade, said.
“There was some stuff around the National [Human Trafficking] Referral Mechanism which is being reviewed. We've been arguing that it's not working—they're not identifying enough victims. Some of the referral decisions are inaccurate.”
ECPAT UK has pushed hard for many things now included in the draft bill—like a “benefit of the doubt clause” which would force cops and prosecutors to give undocumented migrants who might be under 18 the benefits and protections afforded to minors.
But even Mahan acknowledged that there's a big gap between what the policy is and what actually happens.
It's up to the government to make sure cops, judges and prosecutors actually change the way they do business.
“We don't know how it's gonna play out,” he said.
It's hard to believe that any piece of legislation will make illegal migrants any less attractive as a labor force for criminal organizations—they're cheap, anonymous and largely ignorant of their rights and options.
UK prosecutors were supposed to stop treating potentially trafficked victims like criminals in November 2013, but didn't.
Hence the bill.
But the promise of free healthcare and a potential cut of their bosses' seized assets mean Vietnam's rural poor are likely to be convinced even less that growing pot in the UK isn't a good gamble: In fact, it's sounding like a safer bet every day.
The Dutch disaster
Early this month police in Breda and Roosendaal, two towns in southern Netherlands, arrested 17 Vietnamese between the ages of 22 and 70 at a number of locations.
“We have reason to believe that some of them were forced working in cannabis cultivation,” Robert Van Kapel, a spokesman for the Royal Marechaussee—the national police organization— wrote in an email.
This sounds like the same story playing out in Sweden, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Australia, and the UK.
The only difference is it hardly ever happens in Holland.
“It’s the first time the Royal Marechaussee ran into an organization involving Vietnamese,” he said.
That said, the national investigative unit has a lot of experience sniffing out grow houses.
According to Dutch criminologist Bo Bremmers, they raid about 6,000 cannabis farms a year. The farms are so plentiful, in fact, that the police often fly a miniature, remote-controlled heat and dope-sensing helicopter over the roofs of suburban houses to detect them.
On its maiden flight, the “canna-copter” picked up a cannabis farm in under an hour.
Even with this all-seeing eye, there's a lot the Dutch police don't know about who is growing their pot.
At one point, spooked by reports coming out of the UK, they began to worry that these growers were Vietnamese.
Three years ago the nation's anti-cannabis task force asked Bremmers and his colleagues to review everything they had on the 159 Vietnamese farms they raided between 2009 and mid-2011, a figure that Bremmers estimates represented roughly 1 percent of the total raids during that time.
Bremmers found that, unlike in the UK, the Vietnamese growers in the Netherlands saw little need to booby-trap farms, stockpile weapons, or employ slave labor.
Most of their profits, he noted, were laundered through nail shops and spring roll stands.
Only two farms showed vague signs of human trafficking. The rest were staffed by middle-aged, legal residents of Holland who were mostly just fined for the electricity they stole.
It’s legal to buy cannabis in a coffee shop and smoke it there. It’s illegal to grow cannabis, have cannabis in your pocket when you are on the streets or smoke it outside. So the coffee shops are a part of the gedoogbeleid--a policy of turning a blind eye. You can legally buy cannabis but it’s forbidden to grow it. The cannabis just ‘magically’ appears in the coffee shop where it can be sold.” --
Bo Bremmers, Dutch criminologist
At first glance, the Netherlands's cannabis laws appear as though they were written by a group of stoned policemen.
“It’s legal to buy cannabis in a coffee shop and smoke it there,” Bremmers wrote in an e-mail. “It’s illegal to grow cannabis, have cannabis in your pocket when you are on the streets or smoke it outside. So the coffee shops are a part of the gedoogbeleid--a policy of turning a blind eye. You can legally buy cannabis but it’s forbidden to grow it. The cannabis just ‘magically’ appears in the coffee shop where it can be sold.”
The police continue to pursue cannabis, Bremmers says, to prevent organized crime groups from establishing grow operations and exporting their crops to Holland's nonplussed EU neighbors.
And they do a pretty terrible job.
Cops estimate that as much as 90 percent of the country's illegal cannabis crop leaves the country, bringing the shadow groups who grow it billions of dollars a year.
Despite the fact that there's a small-town mayor in the Netherlands pledging to authorize his own rogue grow operation, Bremmers guesses the Dutch government won't legalize it because big EU countries like France--which reports some of the highest cannabis consumption rates in the world--would object.
The irony of this geopolitical pressure is that it creates a kind of ideal environment in which to cultivate and export cannabis.
Instead of a destination for underground operations and indentured migrants, Bremmers believes that Vietnamese crime groups merely view the Netherlands as a good place to buy grow house necessities and learn how to use them.
Dutch grow shops, he noted, have been caught sending whole shipping containers full of equipment to Vietnamese gangs in the UK and the Czech Republic.
But that won't continue.
Now that the gangs have all the equipment and expertise they need, they probably won't need anything else from the Netherlands.
Safe at home
Vietnamese cannabis growers have become something of an obsession for me in the last two months because their stories involve so much hope and sorrow.
Marijuana is sold openly at Nancy market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Gia Huy
In a sense, they're living the American or the Australian or the British dream.
They've risked everything to smuggle themselves into countries they know little about in the hope of finding honest work.
Harsh immigration laws and backward drug laws press them into a lucrative underground economy under conditions that no one likes to produce something that most people want.
Pro-legalization groups in the Netherlands and the UK both claim that a majority of the population now wishes to see something akin to the full, seed-to-sale legalization being pursued in Uruguay and the state of Washington in the US [the latter will open its first recreational marijuana stores this month].
And yet their governments continue to pursue the same bull-headed raid-and-rescue tactics that clearly do nothing to hinder either the supply or the demand for cannabis.
Well-meaning anti-trafficking groups want to treat these individuals as victims—and they arguably are victimized. But the goals of all these governments is ultimately to expel them back to Vietnam or wherever else they come from, not to provide them with the new life they risked everything to get.
Given that, some would-be cannabis gardeners might want to consider setting up shop in Ho Chi Minh City.
While Vietnam's drug laws are absurdly draconian (roughly 600 people are awaiting execution; the majority of them for trafficking heroin and speed) the country is remarkably tolerant of cannabis—so long as you're not a group of Chinese people smuggling it across the border.
Weed is openly traded in District 1's Pham Ngu Lao Ward.
The one dope-growing coffee farmer I know in the Central Highlands griped that he'd been raided right before Tet and fined VND10 million (US$469) by the local police.
“Someone found out about my farm and went and told on me,” he sulked. “So I planted the crop all over again.”
When asked whether he believed he'd get busted again—and face an even stiffer fine—he shrugged.
Last month, he harvested it all and sold it at a profit that allowed him to put the finishing touches on his house.