As Yen Bai grapples with a thriving opiate trade, police in the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta race to convince unwitting farmers not to raise marijuana
When Yen Bai authorities set up Task Force 138 in 2004, they expected to completely eradicate opium poppy cultivation in the northwestern province.
Dried opium plants being sold illegally in the northwestern Yen Bai Province's eponymous town. Yen Bai police and their counterparts in the Mekong Delta and Central Highlands have reported a rise in marijuana cultivation in the past two years - often by farmers who are not aware of the plant's illegal status.
No one predicted that "138" would become code for moonshine laudanum (an illegal tincture made with opium poppies and alcohol) in the province's mountainous regions.
"You can be sure that opium alcohol is available at most restaurants here," said T., a local resident in Yen Bai's provincial capital. "But you can only order a bottle if you know the password. Just order a '138' bottle."
He said poppy plants are widely cultivated in the mountainous districts of Tram Tau and Mu Cang Chai. Poppy stems and fruits are then smuggled into town, soaked in alcohol and sold in petroleum cans.
Lieutenant Colonel Chu Van Hai of Yen Bai Police Department said there has been an increase in poppy cultivation in the two districts during the past two years.
Likewise police in the Mekong Delta and Central Highlands have reported a rise in marijuana cultivation in the past two years - often by farmers who are not aware of the plant's illegal status. The apparent boom in domestic drug cultivation highlights the general population's narcotic naiveté and the difficulties rural authorities face in policing remote rural populations.
"[Opium cultivators] grow the plants in hidden places like cliffs and dense forests," Hai said. "Sometimes they mix the poppies with their corn or vegetable fields to foil detection."
Hai said his men sometimes spend a whole week wandering through the forests before spotting an illegal farm.
So far this year, Yen Bai police have only busted two smuggling cases. During the raids, the authorities managed to seize dozens of kilograms of opium poppy plants.
Last month, six US congressional representatives sponsored a bill to end the ban on marijuana use. Sixteen states now (and the District of Columbia) now contain state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and more are expected to come online. In such states, the plant is prescribed to patients as an analgesic, an anti-anxiety drug and a treatment for insomnia and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
A growing number of governments are moving towards decriminalizing marijuana use and scaling down their diversion of resources to battling marijuana cultivation and use.
The extent of its deleterious effects continue to be debated, though no scientific evidence has been produced indicating that its use leads to chemical dependence.
The remote locations of the illegal fields often prevent police from transporting the evidence back to town for destruction, he said.
Meanwhile, opium poppies continue to be processed into laudanum and sold widely in town. In some cases, the illicit beverage has even been smuggled to Hanoi.
Hung, a drug user in Yen Bai, said he often introduces customers, either locals or visitors from out of town, to illegal opium alcohol shops in town.
An undercover Thanh Nien reporter followed Hung to a number of houses on Ao Sen and Hoang Lien Son streets, where the drink is readily available for purchase.
"One 5-liter can goes for VND750,000 (US$36.4)," one man offered. "It's entirely made from fresh stems and fruits."
When asked for a 10-liter can made from uncut fruits, he asked for VND2.5 million and said the order could be filled in a week.
Hien, a restaurant employee on Hoang Lien Son Street, said opium plants are abundant from January through May. In these months, the restaurant also serves chicken and opium leaf hotpot, she said, adding that the laudanum is available year-round.
She said many visitors from Hanoi often put down deposits on laudanum and the sellers transport the drink back to Hanoi by bus.
"If we can't deliver alcohol to your doorstep, we will return the deposit," she said.
Smoke no evil
A similar battle is raging in the Mekong Delta, where investigators say they are trying to stay ahead of a particularly vexing spike in marijuana cultivation.
Vinh Long narcotics investigators say that the provincial police have discovered and cleared 19 grow spots and seized 668 marijuana plants since June 2010.
Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Rang, the chief narcotics investigator of Vinh Long Police Department, said the first cannabis cultivation case arose in 2009. Since 2010, the number of pot seizures has increased exponentially.
"In most cases, we levy administrative fines against the farmers involved and their plants are uprooted and destroyed," he said. "Thanks to early detection by police, we have busted these illegal farms when the plants are still immature."
Most farmers believe that the plant is a harmless herbal supplement to their animal feed - one that seems to help their animals bulk up faster.
Selling the plant continues to be a criminal offense in Vietnam. But Rang says that those actually growing the drug have managed to plead ignorance more often than not.
Such was not the case for Le Van Be Em. Faith in the power of pot cost Em, a local pig farmer, nine months in jail.
His wife Nguyen Thi Quan recalled that Em had told his friends, over drinks, that his pigs and chickens had grown big and strong after he fed them marijuana.
One of his friends asked for some seeds, claiming that he was raising some fighting cocks, and insisted on paying Em VND400,000.
Several days later, that friend was arrested for trafficking marijuana and Em was jailed as a supplier.
Rang said that many of the famers they've caught with the plants were unaware that they were growing an illegal plant. Many believe it is an herb that is useful in spurring the growth of barnyard poultry.
However, in other cases, Vinh Long police have been unable to give the farmers the benefit of the doubt.
Le Thi Mai, a narcotics investigator in Vinh Long, said police in Binh Minh District recently raided the home of Nguyen Van Nam, a 61-year-old farmer in Thuan An Commune, and uprooted 240 cannabis plants - around 9.5 kilograms of the marijuana.
"Police issued fines of VND3.5 million against Nam," she said. "There's no way that hundreds of pot plants were being raised for animal feed."
Pot patsies caught in the middle
Elsewhere, many farmers in rural parts of the Central Highlands' Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces have been cultivating marijuana without knowing what it is.
At the same time, police there have seized far larger quantities than police in the Delta.
In early May, Dak Lak police seized a total of 37 marijuana plants from the home of Nguyen Ngoc Nga. Each of the plants had grown to between 60 and 70 centimeters.
Nga said his son brought the seeds home in March, claiming that they were a strain of chrysanthemum he'd received from a friend.
"Only when the police came did I learn that the plants were marijuana," he said.
In April, police who were pursuing thieves through a series of rice paddies happened upon 19 marijuana plants growing behind the home of Duong Minh Thao.
Thao said that, several months back, a man had given him the plants and advised him to mix them into his animal feed.
Cao Thanh Vinh, chief of Buon Don District police in Dak Lak, said that his men seized approximately 1,000 marijuana plants from one resident's field in June.
The resident, whose name was not released, said that a stranger from nearby Lam Dong Province had given him the seeds and told him that they were tomatoes.
Vu Van Khanh, a narcotics investigator from the the Dak Nong police force, said they've arrested a number of individuals for trafficking marijuana in recent months.
Following their recent raids, more than 413 kilograms of dried pot and 2,300 live plants have been seized and destroyed in the province, Khanh said, adding that the police have recommended charges and imposed cash penalties against 15 suspects.
Pham Hung Vy, a plant protection official from the Dak Nong Province's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said some people have convinced local farmers that the seeds are a highly valuable (and legal) herb and encouraged them to plant it.
The provincial police said they recently arrested two people for planting marijuana among their coffee trees. The farmers said an acquaintance had given them the seeds and promised to buy the mature plants back at a high price.
He described the plant only as "an herb."