Along with the fields, grow houses, and truckloads of illegally grown marijuana in Oklahoma’s black market, investigators are frequently finding cannabis workers who could be ensnared in human trafficking networks.
Human trafficking involves a person being forced to work by fear or coercion, and is unable to control their own movement.
“Human trafficking is a big issue,” said Gary Dodd, sheriff of Johnston County. “Some of the other sheriffs and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (OBN) have experienced that. I believe a lot of times these victims don’t want to come forward.”
“Specifically related to the marijuana industry here in Oklahoma we’ve had some workers who haven’t been paid, living in deplorable conditions on some of these farms,” said Mark Woodward, spokesman of the OBN. “Again, they would meet the definition of labor trafficking, of human trafficking, but they won’t verbalize a complaint because of fear and desperation for that job.”
Often, workers don’t speak English and rely on a single spokesperson. But according to law enforcement, there is visible fear and hesitation for workers to say anything when their spokesperson is around.
Those that do speak up are eligible for services to help them recover and get out of the situation. But when they don’t talk, officials say it’s nearly impossible to prosecute the groups responsible for modern-day slavery.
While connections between illegal grows and Mexican drug cartels have been uncovered, authorities say many of the busts are tied to criminal syndicates in Asia that are operating on a worldwide scale.
“There are often ties back to Mandarin-speaking workers and also what we would call lieutenants, within some of these organizations that are actually calling the shots,” Woodward said. “They’re moving the workers, they’re moving the product and they’re moving the money. And most of those are outside the state of Oklahoma … operating and coordinating and orchestrating the deliveries and the shipments for these organizations.”