A U.S. citizen and two Myanmar nationals detained last week for growing prohibited cannabis plants in central Myanmar were granted permission from the Mandalay regional government to grow only fiber plants for one year, the region’s chief minister said.
The U.S. business owner, who his attorney said was operating the plantation with official permission, was arrested on April 22 with two others under the country’s Anti-Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances Law for growing prohibited cannabis plants. Police are looking for a fourth man still at large.
Mandalay region Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung told RFA’s Myanmar Service on April 28 that III M Global Nutraceutical Co. was given permission to grow fiber plants for one year, but the owners and workers were arrested for growing cannabis on leased land in an industrial park in Ngunzun township, Myingyan district, in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region.
“The applicant submitted the application for fiber plants, so we gave permission for fiber plants,” he said.
“Only they know their real intention, and we don’t know their real intention for growing these plants. The land owners of the Myotha industrial zone cannot know their intention either, so we are going do what the laws says. Because there are no laws regulating that specific plant, it is illegal.”
Myanmar police arrested John Frederic Todoroki, 63, along with Shane Latt, 37, and Shunlae Myat Noe, 23, for growing 20 acres of cannabis plants that Todorski’s lawyer said were being used for scientific research for possible drugs to treat cancer.
The three are being held in the township prison where they could spend five to 10 years or more if they are found guilty. Authorities are also seeking a fourth man, American Alexander Skemp Todoroki, 49, believed to be Todoroki’s son.
Todoroki’s attorney Thein Than Oo said his client’s health is deteriorating.
Mandalay police along with officials from the region’s Chemical Inspection Department, Food and Drug Administration Department, and Anti-Narcotics Task Force raided the area on April 22, after images of the cannabis field appeared on social media.
Authorities said they found about 349,300 marijuana plants, 5,200 seedlings, 380 kilograms (838 pounds) of marijuana seeds, 1,804 grams (64 ounces) of marijuana oil, and drug processing equipment to turn the plants into cannabidiol, a popular, non-psychoactive, natural remedy used for many common ailments.
“These plants contain varying amounts of psychoactive effects,” Zaw Myint Maung said. “They need to be analyzed in the lab. They grow different kinds of plants, and some of them can be cannabis varieties. They are all fiber plants, [but] they all need to be examined.”
“The company calls them medicinal herbs, [but] in our country, there are no laws regarding cannabis, so growing these plants is not allowed. Therefore, they should not have applied for permission,” he said.
Thein Than Oo on April 26 called the arrests unjust because authorities knew that his company was doing scientific research, and police had confused hemp with recreational marijuana, the Associated Press reported.
Todoroki’s company has been growing the cannabis, drying the hemp, and extracting cannabis oil for the last nine months since it obtained permission from the Mandalay regional government in August 2018. The company intended to cover a total of 60 acres with the plants.
“The applicants intended to legalize the growing of these plants by applying for permission,” Zaw Myint Maung said. “We are not interested in their intention. What we can say is there are no laws permitting the growing of these plants. If anyone does grow them, he will be arrested.”
Thae Su Wai, a lawmaker from Ngunzun township who was at the plantation during the raid, said the operators of the industrial park should have been aware of what Todoroki’s company was doing on its land.
“The leaders of the MMID [Mandalay Myotha Industrial Development] should have been aware of that,” she said. “They are supervising the whole zone, but the government knew about the plantation only when [the photos] went viral.”
RFA was unable to reach the managers of the industrial zone for comment.
Though the regional government granted permission for the operation to grow fiber plants to welcome the foreign investment for the area’s development, officials are not responsible to check the plants to verify what is actually being grown, Thae Su Wai said.
“The MMID’s chairman is responsible for checking on these kind of things, so he has to be accountable,” she said.
‘They were confused’
Todoroki’s attorney, Thein Than Oo, maintained that his client was growing the plants for research purposes.
“My clients are growing plants on legally leased land with permission from the regional government,” he said. “This is a research farm. They are not growing these plants discreetly.”
Thein Than Oo also said the company has brought high-end U.S. technology to the area and recruited as many as 170 local workers who receive a daily wage of 8,000 kyats (U.S. $5.21).
He said that company owners were “confused” about the permission process and should have first applied for permission from the Ministry of Health.
“But they were confused,” he said. “They thought it would be fine to just get the regional government’s permission since this plant is allowed to grow in many countries.”
Aung Say Soe of the Marijuana Legalization Movement Myanmar said his group is collecting 100,000 signatures to try to get the government to legalize the growing of profitable hemp plants in Myanmar, and so far has collected more than 200 signatures.
Myanmar law does not distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
“Currently, the law prohibits all plants called cannabis from being grown in our country,” he said. “But the law does not distinguish between hemp and marijuana. All are collectively prohibited.”
“The government also does not provide samples of plants grown only in research facilities,” he said.
“Ordinary citizens and government authorities alike do not distinguish between these plants,” he said. “[So] when the images of the farm went viral on social media, people freaked out that the foreigners were secretly growing cannabis plants.”
Reported by Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.