Human trafficking underpins the dark side of marijuana legalization

Human trafficking underpins the dark side of marijuana legalization

VicesJuly 09, 2018 By Reilly Capps

They come here for the good life.

They’re agricultural workers from Cuba, China and Mexico. The coyotes tell them: “We’ll smuggle you into America, by boat, by truck, with fake papers, to these glorious marijuana grows. Work five harvests to pay us back, then you’re free to go.”

This is called human trafficking, or indentured servitude. And, though illegal, this deal sometimes works out. But dark market cannabis growers aren’t all saints, and some workers get into situations they can’t get out of.

For example, after a harvest, the handlers say the yields aren’t big enough. The workers owe more. Or that the weed isn’t dank enough, there’s mites or mold. The workers owe more. And when that happens, the workers can’t leave until the guys in charge are satisfied. “We don’t have a car, we don’t have money, and now we’re stuck,” Randy Ladd tells Rooster Magazine. He's a spokesperson for the DEA, and knows plenty about this unfortunate situation many find themselves in.

But it gets worse, he says. He’s heard stories of straight-up robbery. After the five harvests, for example, the workers will have bushels of weed. Then the boss will order an associate — someone the worker doesn’t know — to bust in and rob them at gunpoint. Then he’ll say, “It was your fault you got robbed, now you owe us five more harvests.”

“Sometimes they shoot and kill the people; they’ll kill them right there,” Ladd says, not offering any specific cases of murder because they’re still under investigation.

The bad juju of human exploitation happens nearly everywhere, from manufacturing to sex work, says Craig Nason, spokesperson for the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, a Colorado-based nonprofit. But often the less regulation there is, the more exploitation, and marijuana has no federal oversight. “We would have concerns in any unregulated industry in which workers didn’t know their rights,” Nason says.

The DEA admits there are so many marijuana grows of different sizes in dozens of states, it’s hard to tell the difference between a legit grow and a dark market operation — and between a happy weed worker and a victim of international crime.

Illegal or illicit grows run by people from China,

Mexico or Cuba have valuable connections for labor that’s cheap — or free.

In Western Colorado, near Rifle, the DEA found a grow with Chinese workers who fled when the cops showed up. And when authorities in NorCal went to renew the permit on a legal marijuana farm, they found workers from Laos and Mongola living in a cargo container. Some fled the cops on foot. In DeKalb, Illinois, an investigation into human trafficking led them directly to a grow house.

This isn’t just an American problem. In Ireland — where cannabis is illegal — it’s reported that many of its underground grows are staffed by Vietnamese people who get low wages and live in filth. There, the use of indentured servants is increasing rapidly, one report stated.

There are no good numbers for how many marijuana grows are involved in human trafficking in America. But the DEA is finding them more and more.

Last June in Denver, for example, Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman announced that officials took down an alleged “massive illegal marijuana trafficking conspiracy.” Seventy-four people were charged with growing more weed than the state allows and shipping the excess from Colorado to Texas — then laundering the millions of dollars they earned.

It’s easier to exploit people in illegal industries than in above board ones. For decades, the workers in underground marijuana have been exploited, foreign or not. This happened often in the Emerald Triangle in Northern California. Though most workers have great times there and make a ton of money, some are taken advantage of, given low wages and kept away from society for months at a time.

Agent Ladd calls this, “the dark side of marijuana.”

[cover photo Anton Watman via Shutterstock]