November 9, 2021 08:30 am ETEstimated Read Time: 4 Minutes
For many, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were devastating—socially, professionally, physically, emotionally, and mentally. For a farmer in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, Vietnam, a serious change was needed in order to survive the pandemic. After pandemic impacts “rendered his products unsellable, plunging him into a dire situation,” 39-year-old Ho Long Phung switched to growing illicit cannabis, VnExpress International reports. Sadly, he paid a price.
A Risky Venture
A 2020 study published in Scientia Agropecuaria explains that quarantines and panic have a significant impact on human activities and economic growth, including agricultural activities. In addition to causing increased hunger and malnutrition, infectious diseases can lead to “labor shortages for the harvest, or difficulties for farmers to bring their products to market.” For people who depend on these practices for survival, drastic measures—like growing cannabis illegally—can become necessary.
According to VnExpress International, Phung relocated from the Mekong Delta to Dak Lak in 2015 to grow and sell produce. After researching cannabis extensively online and planting his first 50 plants, Phung soon had 1 kilogram of dried cannabis to sell (which he also did online). The farmer saw significant success from his early cannabis yields, eventually purchasing another 300 seeds for 3 million VND (around $132). To grow the new business even further, he built two greenhouses and a watering and lighting system.
Unfortunately, the good fortune did not last for long. In September, Phung was detained by Dak Lak police following a raid on his property. The police seized hundreds of cannabis plants ripe for harvest along with several dried cannabis products ready for sale. Phung is currently being questioned about his “alleged illegal storing of narcotic substances” and awaiting a sentence, according to police.
Vietnam and Cannabis
Vietnam’s relationship with cannabis is a tricky one. While the plant is officially illegal to grow, sell, or possess in Vietnam, many describe the implementation of these laws as “lax.” A group of tourists recounting their visit to Vietnam referred to it as “a weed-friendly country” in which cannabis laws are strict on paper but easy to bypass in practice. In their experience, “laws aren’t enforced by the police officers when it comes to cannabis; especially if a foreigner consumes it.” This is apparently due to Vietnam’s desire to increase its marketability to young tourists.
However, not everyone recommends messing with cannabis in Vietnam. Despite stories of police being easily bribed with cannabis, The THC Times warns against trying your luck with Vietnam’s cops. You might get off scot-free, or you might end up being burdened with one of the country’s harsh punishments for violating substance laws. These can range all the way from six months in jail to the death penalty for large-scale cultivation and distribution. While VnExpress International only predicts up to three years of jail time for Phung’s operations, time will tell what the farmer will pay for dabbling in cannabis.
A Recurring Problem
Phung is definitely not the first Vietnamese farmer to turn to illegal cannabis cultivation out of desperation. Vietnamese immigrant Cuong Nguyen, who ran illegal cannabis operations in the United Kingdom for years, explained to Al Jazeera, “All I ever wanted was to make money…whether it was legal or illegal.” Nguyen made the dangerous journey from the “poor, rough Vietnamese port town of Haiphong” to the UK in the hopes of making a better life for himself.
Nguyen earned nearly $19,000 during his time growing and distributing cannabis in the UK—but just like Phung’s venture, it was short-lived. In 2014, the cannabis grower was arrested for cannabis consumption, which eventually led to a 10-month sentence for growing cannabis. Nguyen was deported back to Vietnam after serving his sentence, where he was forced to start over with no money to his name. According to the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council, “around 12% of all cannabis convicts in the country are Southeast Asian, more than any other non-European nationality.”
Both Phung’s and Nguyen’s stories serve as cautionary tales to those who might be considering illegal cannabis as a means of survival. The question remains: Why are the penalties for such operations so severe considering the overall harmlessness of cannabis? Some believe that farmers like Phung should not be prosecuted because cannabis is medicine, while others feel that his arrest was justified because he broke the law. In countries like Vietnam, where cannabis legalization is not on the horizon, residents should deeply consider the risks before going in on the green.
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