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In Seattle Area, Vietnamese-Americans Getting in on Marijuana Farming

Upper-tier organizers typically conduct business among tight-knit groups of similar ethnicities, rendering surveillance and other investigative methods virtually ineffective.
 
 
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The Vietnamese American community in Seattle is becoming increasingly stigmatized, as more Vietnamese American marijuana growers are busted for their involvement in the growth and trafficking of marijuana in the Pacific Northwest.

The publicity comes on the heels of numerous drug busts. In one investigation, organized by the South Snohomish County Narcotics Task Force, along with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 10,000 plants were confiscated and over three dozen Vietnamese arrested in multiple seizures in south Snohomish and north King counties in June 2010. Other busts occurred in Sammamish, Lynnwood, Renton, Bellevue and Seattle neighborhoods in recent years.

But a Seattle-area defense attorney who services the majority of these cases, Khanh Tran, believes the Vietnamese community gets a bad rap.

“I think it has created a stigma for the Vietnamese community because there has been so much attention on the issue,” says Tran, who is currently representing Vietnamese American cannabis growers out of his Chinatown/ID law office.

“The stigma in the community is that everyone is doing this. But the reality is that there are a lot of risks involved in it. It’s not an easy thing to do, but the growers are driven to it by necessity because of the economic problem they are having.” Tran believes their economic problems stem from language barriers and a lack of well-paying jobs for Vietnamese immigrants. The promise of quick money also contributes.

The predominance of Vietnamese growers or Vietnamese immigrant-organized crime groups in the Seattle area can be attributed to a variety of factors. Before Sept. 11, much of the pot in the Pacific Northwest had been supplied by Canadian sources. “BC Bud” became synonymous with high quality marijuana grown in British Columbia. But after 9/11, the increase in border security made it riskier for smugglers to cross the US border from Canada. So the distributors decided to base their growing operation in the US, making it a less risky and ultimately more profitable venture. And since most of the marijuana producers -- aka cartels -- in Canada are Vietnamese in ethnicity, it follows that the growers they hire in the Pacific Northwest region be Vietnamese as well.

The whole illicit operation, from the upper tier management in Canada to the lower level growers in the US, is highly organized. Tran says “there is an upper tier group who puts out investment for renting houses, invests in capital to purchase equipment, and recruits people down here who are unemployed.”

Most of the houses used for growing the plants are located in middle-class suburban neighborhoods, where drug activity is less likely to be suspected. At these houses, a group of Vietnamese people, or “crop-sitters,” are hired to grow and take care of the plants. These people are structured through “family units,” which use a mixture of fear, trust, and relatives to maintain control over the operation. The system is organized in such a way as to minimize risk for the upper-tier leaders who reside in Canada.

As Tran notes, “The problem is that people being recruited are usually taking the fall when they get raided by local law enforcement. And the upper-tiers are never touched.”

Tran remains skeptical regarding any solutions to the prevalence of Vietnamese American marijuana growers. The language and cultural barriers make it difficult for investigators to infiltrate the organizations. To make matters worse, the upper-tier organizers typically conduct business among tight-knit groups of similar ethnicities, rendering surveillance and other investigative methods virtually ineffective and is part of the reason why these groups are recruited.

Tran also believes the prevailing debate about legalizing marijuana doesn’t solve the true problem.

“I don’t think there will be a solution. It’s a source of revenue for a lot of people. The whole argument about legalization doesn’t address the type of organizations you’re dealing with. These organizations are basically criminal in nature,” Tran says.

But the increasingly “marijuana-friendly” climate in Seattle has influenced the growers’ strategy regarding the selling of their product. Because of the legalization of medical marijuana in Seattle, more drug organizations are looking to push their product out of state.

The legalization of medical marijuana “will probably impact the smaller local organizations because users will go through legal manufacturers,” said Tran. “A lot of distributors are not selling here but more across the country. Some of the more organized groups are not affected.”

More Vietnamese representation in drug enforcement could help curtail the difficulties in penetrating the Vietnamese crime organizations. In addition, if the community helps to meet the economic needs of immigrants, especially in light of recent proposed budget cuts, these would-be growers would think twice about turning to illegal means for money and instead turn to positive opportunities.

While this reasoning shouldn’t justify the decisions and actions of a small group of participants and organizers, the hope is to create awareness of the risk and desperation many immigrants face. In addition, the hope is to draw attention to federal, state and local law enforcement that it is the upper-level organizers who should be sought out; and to legislators and community leaders to support the positive advancement of immigrant communities and offer opportunities for success.

 
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