Since restrictions were introduced to combat the second wave of COVID-19 last September, marijuana sales have increasingly shifted online. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Since restrictions were introduced to combat the second wave of COVID-19 last September, marijuana sales have increasingly shifted online. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Myanmar’s dank web: Drug trade shifts to Facebook amid pandemic

The minimum penalty for trafficking marijuana is 10 years’ imprisonment but that hasn’t deterred an increasing number of dealers from selling openly on social media.

By HEIN THAR | FRONTIER

This story is from the January 28 issue of Frontier

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend towards online shopping in Myanmar and many other countries, especially among those affected by lockdown orders. Netizens are turning to the internet for take-away, fresh produce, clothing, gifts, jewellery, toys, video streaming… but also, increasingly, narcotics. 

And while drug dealers and shoppers in many other countries turn to the dark web in order to conceal their activities, in Myanmar it largely plays out in open groups on Facebook – much like every other aspect of the country’s online life.

Some drug dealers who use Facebook as their marketing vehicle even feature footage of themselves smoking marijuana and sometimes other drugs, such as methamphetamine.

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon for online drug sales. Frontier has found at least 23 public and private groups were created in September and October last year to sell drugs, a time when the authorities were putting in place movement restrictions to curb the spread of a second wave of the virus. 

All that’s required to find the groups is to type the Burmese word hse chauq (marijuana) into Facebook. These pages act as a marketplace rather than a shopfront, with multiple dealers active in each group. 

Myanmar was once notorious for being the world’s biggest producer of opium, the raw material for making heroin, and in more recent years it has become a centre for the production of methamphetamines and other synthetic drugs. Methamphetamine pills known as yaba ­sell locally for the equivalent of a dollar or two, and are widely consumed.

Read more: The push to decriminalise drug use in Myanmar

In contrast, most Facebook groups focus on the sale of marijuana – five pages are doing so quite openly – and the customers seem to be younger people in major cities, including Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Bago.

“Marijuana became a big sales item on Facebook during the pandemic,” said Saya Ni, 29, who has been growing and selling the drug since 2016 and would only say that he lived in Mandalay Region. 

Saya Ni only sells one type of marijuana, a strain from the dry zone known as tha yat, or “mango”, and has kept the price at K1,000 ($US0.75) a gramme (0.03527 ounces) for four years, which he says is cheap for the domestic market.

“Half of my customers shifted to using online sellers this year, because they have more product on offer and provide a faster, easier service,” said Saya Ni. But he cautioned that it was riskier for the buyer. “Those of us who sell in person have our ways of avoiding the police. For online sellers, it’s harder to provide that guarantee.

“I have my own rules; I will not sell online to people I do not know, I will not sell to minors, I will not sell more than 100g because if a customer is arrested in possession of more than that amount of marijuana, they could be sent to prison for 10 years or more under section 19 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law,” he said.

The Frontier investigation found that most online marijuana dealers sell the tha yat or kyauk strains, or compressed marijuana imported from Thailand and probably grown in Laos. The cost per gramme ranges from K20,000 to K40,000. Some dealers even sell marijuana plants.

One of the most popular Facebook groups has 13,200 members, calls itself wee chit thu myar, or “Weed Lovers”, and carries a banner message that reads, “Rats do not enter”. According to a post from the admin, the page welcomes more than 300 new visitors a day. 

“There could be children, there could be students, there could even be policemen in the group, but they [sellers] don’t care, because most people who enter use fake accounts,” said a resident of Taunggyi in Shan State who is a member of the group.

Sellers mainly rely on highway buses to deliver orders, but some deliver direct to customers in nearby townships. It is quite easy to place an order through a group or on a seller’s page.

Sellers say the best domestically grown marijuana is cultivated in Magway and Sagaing regions, which have vast areas of farmland in which it is easy to conceal illicit crops. 

Many marijuana wholesalers – who buy from farms and distribute to dealers, known as gyeit or “hooks” – are in Mandalay and Yangon, and they rely on buses or delivery services to provide product to customers. 

After COVID-19 restrictions resulted in the suspension of highway bus services, many online drug sellers turned to package delivery services. This in turn forced companies such as Royal Express, one of the country’s biggest courier firms, to introduce new procedures to deal with potentially illicit cargo. 

“The online drug sellers created a lot of trouble, with our employees reporting many suspicious packages in recent months. So, our management team decided that we would inspect every package to know if its content were legal or not,” said U Min Min Oo, the managing director of Royal Express.

“Royal Express began inspecting every package it received from the first week of January to ensure it was legal to carry,” Min Min Oo told Frontier on January 18.

Most transactions are paid for using Wave Money, according to multiple interviewees as well as posts within the groups. Rather than the WavePay app, which requires users to input identification details when they register, buyers and sellers use Wave Money’s agent-to-agent service to ensure anonymity. The company requires its 65,000 agents to ask both the sender and recipient to show a Citizenship Scrutiny Card (often referred to as an NRC), but in practice this is not always followed.

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A spokesperson for Wave Money told Frontier that mobile financial services have brought many benefits to the people of Myanmar – not least of all making it easy to send and receive money anywhere in the country – but criminals “will attempt to leverage financial services platforms and social media networks to carry out their illegal business”.

“We continue to educate, monitor and censure our agents where required on compliance to regulatory obligations, including capturing NRCs, names and phone numbers of senders and recipients. We also continue to cooperate and help law enforcement authorities that are investigating these cases to ensure that we are protecting the integrity of the service,” the spokesperson said.

Although there are dozens of private or public groups dedicated to selling drugs online, it seems they have yet to attract the attention of anti-narcotics task force police. One high-ranking officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while close to 20,000 people a year are arrested on drugs charges, arrests for selling drugs online are quite rare.

“Sometimes we get evidence that a person has bought drugs online – for example, the seller might post the voucher for the postage in an open group. We then wait at the express bus gate and arrest them when they come to collect it,” he said. “But we’ve never been able to track and arrest the sellers.”

The President’s Office has set up an information centre for drug-related tip offs, and regularly publishes information about arrests with case details. Frontier could find no evidence of an arrest being made as a result of a tip-off, and a spokesperson said that the information centre only acts if the person providing the information gives the name and exact address of the drug dealer. 

In 2017, when it was less common to sell drugs online, a private Facebook group with more than 1,000 members was exposed by a weekly newspaper, The Voice Journal, prompting the group admins to immediately close it down to avoid possible legal action. On January 21, shortly before Frontier went to press, the Weed Lovers page also disappeared, although it is unclear why.

The caution is understandable. Myanmar has harsh penalties for those caught using drugs, including at least five years’ imprisonment for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Government figures released in 2019 showed that about half of all prisoners in Myanmar, about 45,000 inmates, were doing time for drug offences.

The recreational use of marijuana has been decriminalised in some countries, including Canada, Portugal and South Africa, as well as in several states in the United States. The use of medical marijuana has been legalised in more than 40 countries, including Thailand, and in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia in the US.

On December 2, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs removed cannabis from its schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where it has been classified as one of the most dangerous drugs, with no redeeming medicinal features, along with heroin.

Frontier visited III M Global Nutraceutical’s plantation on June 11, 2019, and found rows of withered cannabis plants on 20 acres of Myotha Industrial Park in Mandalay Region’s Ngazun Township. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Unlike drugs such as opium and heroin, marijuana is not physically addictive, though there is debate over whether it might be psychologically addictive, and there is no known case of a marijuana user ever suffering a fatal overdose.

But despite the trend of liberalisation elsewhere in the world, growing and using the cannabis plant in any form remains illegal in Myanmar, and as mentioned above, the penalties are severe. 

In April 2019, police arrested a US citizen and two Myanmar nationals for allegedly growing marijuana in the Myotha Industrial Park in Mandalay Region’s Myingyan Township. They claimed their company, III M Global Nutraceutical, was growing industrial hemp rather than marijuana, and had permission from the regional government. The American, Mr John Todoroki, later fled the country while on bail. Although the court ordered the release of a 22-year-old girl who was working as an intern at the company, it sentenced a worker, Ko Shein Latt, 38, to 20 years in prison. In August 2020 the sentence was reduced to 10 years. 

“If you are caught with marijuana, you will go straight to prison for years; judges are not interested in hearing your explanation about the drug’s benefits,” said U Myo Wai, a retired anti-drug task force police officer who lives in Mandalay. “Don’t dream about legalisation – it’s a million miles away,” he said.

Some groups in Myanmar are campaigning for marijuana to be legalised, but the government has never expressed an opinion on the issue. One of the groups, the Mahar Legalisation Movement, promoted legalisation on its Facebook page, but it was closed by the group’s leader, Ko Aung Say Toe, in early 2020. In a parting Facebook Live message, he said the legalisation of marijuana was “impossible” for the time being.  

Read more: Withered leaves: the jailing of Myanmar’s hemp pioneers

In November 2019, members of a users’ group called NJ, led by Ko Sein Hla Maung, held a protest outside City Hall in downtown Yangon in support of legalisation that attracted about 50 young people. Sein Hla Maung was arrested and later fined K20,000 for breaching the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.

“A young person can go to prison for many years for having just one joint of marijuana; I don’t want that. It is one reason why I advocate legalisation,” Sein Hla Maung told Frontier at his first court hearing on November 25 that year. 

Sein Hla Maung still appears on Facebook from time to time to promote legalisation, and last October and November, about 20 NJ branches were founded throughout the country, identified by the prefix “NJ” followed by their state, city or area, such as NJ Kachin, NJ Taunggyi, and NJ Yangon-North Side. Some of those groups recently began online sales. 

In some NJ groups, the admins claim that they do not sell marijuana, but in others they advertise that they send drugs through the highway buses to other towns.

However, not all dealers and supporters of legalisation are happy to see their drug of choice being sold openly online.

“There is a Burmese saying that good things are not for everyone; if they were for everyone, they would not be good things,” says grower and seller Saya Ni. “If marijuana was abundant and easy to buy, it would have less value ­– and it would be bad for young people.”

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