YANGON, Myanmar – The arrest of an American man in Myanmar for growing 20 acres of cannabis plants is unjust because authorities were aware that his company was doing scientific research and police were confusing hemp with recreational marijuana, his lawyer said Friday.
Attorney Thein Than Oo said that John Fredric Todoroki and the III M Global Nutraceutical Co. had received official permission for their activity, which he described as research.
“This company rented the land and is running its laboratory officially,” he said. “Their intention is to do research, not to sell or distribute. If their research goes well, they will work with the government.”
Myanmar’s anti-drug agency says Todoroki and two Myanmar citizens were arrested after police on Monday raided the plantation on an industrial estate in the country’s central Mandalay region.
Police found what they said were about 349,300 marijuana plants, 5,200 seedlings, 380 kilograms (838 pounds) of marijuana seeds, 1,804 grams (64 ounces) of marijuana oil, and chemicals and equipment for processing the plants into CBD, or cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating compound that many believe has health benefits.
Police said they were also seeking to arrest Alexander Skemp Todoroki. It’s unclear where the Todorokis, believed to be father and son, last lived in the U.S.
Hemp can be grown legally in many countries, and it is often used for making CBD products. Marijuana is another form of cannabis and a source of CBD. But it has psychoactive effects, causing a high.
Myanmar law does not distinguish between the two, and the suspects face criminal charges that could land them in prison for five to 10 years or more, depending on what charges are formally filed against them.
Neighboring Thailand in December legalized the regulated production and sale of cannabis products for medical purposes, responding in part to a growing informal market for such items. In the country’s recent election, a major party advocated liberalizing marijuana laws more to benefit farmers.
Malaysia has considered similar legislation.
Thein Than Oo, who is general secretary of the Independent Lawyers Association of Myanmar, said Todoroki’s arrest could impact foreign investment, so the authorities should act with care. Myanmar was under socialist military rule from the 1960s through the 1980s, when it eschewed foreign investment despite being one of the region’s poorest countries. It is still struggling to make the transition to a full free-market economy.
An advocate of legalizing marijuana in Myanmar said he also feared the arrest would affect foreign investment.
“This is unfair,” said Aung Say Soe of Marijuana Legalization Movement Myanmar. “This American has already asked for permission from the government. It is like slapping down investment.”
Aung Say Soe also said it was obvious that the plantation was growing hemp, and that the difference from the type of marijuana used for getting high was easy to distinguish.
The authorities “can check with botanists,” he said.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this story.