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Marijuana Farms Utilizing Undocumented Workers Caught in 'Debt Bondage' and Other 'Coercive' Methods


Woodward noted that there are thousands of these illicit farms across the state, and they can cultivate marijuana at a lower cost compared to similar operations in California or New York



According to Mark Woodward, the spokesperson and educational officer for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, Mexican drug cartels involved in human trafficking are expanding their operations into Oklahoma.


Rescue America, an NGO, estimates that around 403,000 individuals are currently victims of trafficking in the United States. Many of these individuals, who are often brought into the country illegally, are coerced into providing sexual services or forced labor.


Woodward notes that in the five years since medical marijuana legalization in Oklahoma, criminal marijuana growers have migrated to the state, frequently employing undocumented workers from China. These immigrants, often in dire financial circumstances, willingly enter the country with the hope of paying off their debts to cartels or smugglers by working on illicit marijuana farms in Oklahoma.


“The problem becomes that the debt never ends, and that’s a form of debt bondage,” Woodward said in an interview with Federal Newswire. “That’s a form of human trafficking we do see quite a bit.”


Woodward stated that individuals working on illicit marijuana farms endure appalling living conditions, such as cramped trailers lacking plumbing and scarce food, “but when they want out, they can’t get out,” he said. He mentioned that victims, including those caught in sex trafficking, often find themselves in these circumstances voluntarily.

“There are just a lot of different types of coercion and fear and fraud that are used to manipulate someone’s activities,” Woodward added that there are tens of thousands of undocumented individuals employed on marijuana farms in Oklahoma.


Woodward noted that there are thousands of these illicit farms across the state, and they can cultivate marijuana at a lower cost compared to similar operations in California or New York. He approximated that a pound of marijuana grown in Oklahoma could fetch $3,900 in New York, equating to $78 million per semi-truck. Rescue America reports that the number of individuals being trafficked in the country equates to approximately one out of every 800 residents. “There are more trafficking points of sale in America than there are Starbucks,” the group reports.



Despite the scale of the issue, Woodward mentioned that approximately 300 victims have been liberated in Oklahoma.


According to Woodward, who has conducted numerous drug identification classes for both the public and law enforcement, one of the major challenges is that victims often fail to recognize themselves as such. This is because they are manipulated into their situations through a process known as grooming, where a sense of trust is established between the trafficker and the victim, making it difficult to break free.


In Oklahoma, there is strong collaboration among federal, state, and local officials as well as service providers, Woodward noted. However, he suggested that increasing the number of agents, investigators, and shelter spaces for victims would be beneficial in addressing the growing issue.


Woodward also highlighted that Oklahoma has effective human trafficking laws modeled after states that have successfully tackled such crimes. He mentioned his involvement in drafting numerous drug and money laundering laws.


Furthermore, Woodward pointed out that the easing of border restrictions due to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in people being smuggled into the United States from various countries, including those in the Middle East and Central America.


“It’s not like somebody at the border puts a gun to their heads and says, ‘Get into this truck and go to Oklahoma,’” he said.




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