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The Canadian Connection
Why do Vietnamese grow so much dope?
-by Michael L. Gray

Tai sao nguoi VN lai trong nhieu thuoc can sa den the? Doc bai nay bang tieng Viet.

In early March 2007 police found cannabis growing in large gardens in Ha Tay province, near Hanoi. Drug traffickers had hired farmers to grow the weed, and police say it went undetected for some time because locals didn’t know what it was. The owner of the field thought the cannabis was a medicinal plant (well, it is), and generally the neighbouring farmers were surprised to learn it was an illegal drug.

There is little history of cannabis use in northern Vietnam. It is not smoked regularly here like it is in Lao and other neighbouring countries. Alcohol and opium (now heroin) are the traditional drugs of choice. Cannabis was grown in the south during the American war, but this dropped off sharply after the GIs left.

So why is it cropping up now? Hanoi expats have long lamented the lack of good local bud, but this is no mere happy coincidence. Vietnamese drug traffickers have become, in the past ten years, the world’s primary purveyors of high-potency marijuana. The sudden emergence of cannabis gardens around Hanoi is just a case of chickens coming home to roost.

Many of the workers tending
the plants are children

But how and why did northern Vietnamese gangs make cannabis the source of their ever-increasing fortunes?

The story shifts to the UK, where in recent years police have been busting indoor hydroponic cannabis operations in record numbers. In London, 1,500 growing operations were discovered from 2005-2007, up from 500 the previous two years.

Some 75 percent of the growers are ethnic Vietnamese, and most are recent immigrants. The situation is so bad that immigration officers now routinely accompany police on raids.

Many of the workers tending the plants are children, smuggled into the UK by drug gangs specifically to work in growing operations. The children are easier to control and can be paid less. In addition, they cannot be charged for the crime, and so after a growing operation is busted, the children can be taken out of state care and returned to a new cannabis house. If they are forced to return to Vietnam, there is nothing preventing them from being re-smuggled back to the UK. (A quirk in British law makes the immigration service not accountable to the provisions safeguarding children in the 2004 Children Act.)

The profits are enormous. One house can turn out US$500,000 of cannabis yearly. Ten years ago, 11 percent of marijuana used in the UK was grown domestically. Now that figure is 60 percent. Moreover, the marijuana is a high-potency variety called skunk, with a drug content ten or twenty times higher than regular cannabis. The growing operations use high-tech equipment costing up to $100,000 to increase yields and hide the crop from neighbours (the odor and heat generated by production is intense, and the chemical fertilizers are highly toxic).

The immediate reason for the increase is a 2004 legal change that downgraded marijuana to a ‘Class C’ drug instead of Class B, meaning people would not be charged with a crime if small amounts are found in their possession. People understood this as decriminalization, and domestic production of the drug took off.

The west coast of Canada has been
a marijuana hotbed for a long time

But why are Vietnamese gangs behind the actual growing operations? Why not some other criminal group?

To this answer this, we move our story once again, to the beautiful city of Vancouver on the west coast of my home country, Canada.

In the mid to late 1990s, Vietnamese took over the cannabis industry in and around Vancouver, in British Columbia province. This was no small feat, as the large-scale production of marijuana was until then controlled by the Hells Angels motorcycle club, notorious for their use of violence against rivals.

The west coast of Canada has been a marijuana hotbed for a long time. In the 1960s, Americans fleeing the war draft came to the mountains of British Columbia and grew cannabis as a subsistence crop. Canadians have an increasingly relaxed attitude to soft drugs, and many on the west coast grow their own pot. But these are ‘hobbyists’ growing for personal use or for sale to friends. The Hells Angels started large-scale, industrial production of cannabis to feed the huge U.S. market. And in the 1990s, Vietnamese gangs started to take over.

The Hells Angels typically had large plantations in barns in rural areas. Once discovered, a huge crop would be lost and it was hard to start over. The Vietnamese focused on turning small urban and suburban apartments and houses into growing operations. If discovered, these smaller operations were easy to re-start somewhere else. Crucially, the police also had a ‘soft’ attitude to the crime, at least initially, and people caught growing cannabis would get away with just a fine or a suspended sentence (no jail time).

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency report from December 2000 says that in 1998, 2,351 cultivation cases were found in British Columbia province. One year later, this rose 30 percent to 3,279 cases. In 1994, some 325 pounds of marijuana was seized crossing the British Columbia border with the U.S. In 1998, 2,600 pounds were seized.

High-potency marijuana was perfected in British Columbia, where shops openly sold seeds, equipment and books on how to set up a hydroponic grow-op. In the 1990s ‘BC Bud’ was the strongest cannabis available, and Americans loved it. Worth $1,500 to $2,000 per pound in Vancouver, the drug sold for $3,000 per pound in California and up to $8,000 per pound in New York (figures from the 2000 DEA report). Recent estimates say the business is worth $6.5 billion yearly for the province of British Columbia, second only to oil and gas.

Hai Phong, like all port cities, has always
had a strong criminal element

But if this sets up the context, it still doesn’t answer our initial question: there are lots of immigrant groups in Vancouver, so why was it Vietnamese gangs that dominated so quickly?

To answer this, I think it’s necessary to look at the particular story of migration involved. And to be clear, the average Vietnamese-Canadian has nothing to do with this tale. In the years after 1975, Canada like most Western nations accepted tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. These were people from the south, largely well-educated professionals. They settled in the major urban centres of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and to a lesser extent Edmonton and Vancouver.

By and large, this first generation of immigrants did very well in Canada. My hometown, Ottawa, is one of few North American cities with no real ‘Chinatown’. We have a Vietnam town, full of a variety of profitable small businesses (not just restaurants) owned by ethnic Vietnamese or Chinese-Vietnamese. Ottawa is the centre of Canada’s high-tech industry, and a few years back the Ottawa Citizen carried a feature story on the prominence of Vietnamese-Canadian engineers in this profitable sector.

In general this is the story for Vietnamese-Canadians across most of Canada; well-educated professionals across a range of vocations. When it comes to Vancouver, however, the story is a little different.

Vancouver was the destination for many northern Vietnamese who migrated via the Hong Kong refugee camp. These were economic refugees who fled Vietnam in the mid and late 1980s. Many come from modest roots, hailing from Hai Phong and the poor northern coastal region. Hai Phong, like all port cities, has always had a strong criminal element. I’ve heard it said that in the 1980s, Vietnam was so desperate that government officials took some of the worst criminals and literally dropped them into boats and pushed them toward Hong Kong. In any case, the Hong Kong camp was a horrific place, with refugees left sitting for years in a legal limbo, under the control of gangs that ran rampant with no interference from outside authorities. If you didn’t have criminal tendencies when you went in, no one could blame you for having them when you left.

The northerners who arrived in Canada in the late 1980s and 1990s often went to Vancouver or western Canada (I’m not sure why). There, they would have come across southern Vietnamese already ‘integrated’ or at least successfully living middle-class lives in Canada. There was no welcoming committee. Lacking education and opportunities, they were vulnerable to gangs offering loads of money for work requiring no experience whatsoever.

The risk/reward scenario for growing cannabis in the 1990s in Vancouver was almost all reward, with little risk. Society, including the police, had a relatively generous attitude to dealing with new immigrants (it would be politically incorrect in Canada to start throwing piles of recent immigrants in jail). Furthermore, society, including the police, had a soft attitude toward drug crimes (there is a big distinction in Canada and the UK between ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana and ‘hard’ drugs like heroin). When urban growing operations were discovered, the result was a small fine, not jail. This is a huge difference between Canada and the U.S., and the reason cultivation did not start south of the border – at least until recently.

So, for the gang members arriving in Vancouver, it was easy to recruit their fellow Vietnamese to run growing operations. They funneled the profits into other criminal enterprises, including heroin smuggling. In only a few years, northern Vietnamese gangs all but pushed the Hells Angels out of Vancouver, prompting one police officer to call them "the most tenacious, extraordinarily focused criminals ever introduced into Canada."

The business quickly
spread to other countries

Living in 1980s command-economy Vietnam – where everyone ‘broke the law’ just to survive – and the incredibly arduous migration to the Hong Kong refugee camp – which has been compared to a Soviet gulag – must have influenced their incredible determination to succeed in Canada at all cost.

From the west coast of Canada, and from the original northern Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese growers, the business spread, you guessed it, like a weed. They went right across Canada, increasingly involving other (southern) Vietnamese and Asian immigrants in the business, not only as growers, but making use of real estate agents and others who could easily get mortgages on prime suburban properties. And because the network of Vietnamese refugees is so international, with members of the same family or clan offered asylum by different governments, it is also no surprise that the business quickly spread to other countries, chiefly the UK, when risk/reward conditions there became more favourable.

There’s one final twist to the story. The U.S. was initially avoided as a production spot because the law wasn’t so forgiving: getting caught meant a long jail sentence of up to ten years.

However, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, border security was tightened and the number of drug seizures on the Canada-U.S. border increased dramatically. So the traffickers set up shop in the U.S., opening garden supply stores and finding real estate agents in the Vietnamese community who could help them get mortgages to large suburban properties. The violence plaguing the business in Vancouver, sadly, has also flowed south of the border.

At some point, probably just in the past few years, the gangs decided their home turf in the Red River Delta would also be a good spot to set up operations (has anyone tried this product?). This must make the government nervous, and they have started to react: early in 2007 the UK and Canadian embassies helped the Vietnamese government set up an anti-money laundering task force that is specifically targeting cannabis money. For the average Vietnamese, gangs making millions of dollars overseas probably only has one notable effect – repatriated drug money is contributing to the already overheated real estate market.

In any case, once a hot seller is discovered by farmers here, it typically spreads like wildfire. If marijuana futures traded on the Hanoi bourse, I’d be a buyer.

Nine ton hash bust. That is a lot of hash.
"Canadian grass" parties in Hanoi. I've been to a few of those. In Canada.

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Site design, images and writing © 2007 by Michael L. Gray
About 75 percent of cannabis produced in the UK is grown by Vietnamese. Why?

In the old days it was a combination of state security agencies and warlords that generated most of the world's drug profits.

With globalisation and the end of the cold war, apparently you just need a strong transnational business network.

Good reading on the history of this topic is The Politics of Heroin in Asia by Alfred McCoy. Somewhat surprisingly, this book was translated into Vietnamese by a state publishing house and I bought a copy in Hanoi in 2001.