YANGON (Reuters) - A U.S. citizen facing narcotics charges in Myanmar had received official permission to establish a hemp plantation in the former royal capital, Mandalay, a lawyer for the American said on Friday.
After images of a field of cannabis plants at the plantation spread on Myanmar social media, police raided the 20-acre site on Wednesday and detained John Fredric Todoroki, 63, and two Myanmar nationals under an anti-narcotics law, according to a statement from anti-drug police.
Mandalay-based lawyer Thein Than Oo told Reuters the arrests were the result of a misunderstanding, and that Todoroki had been up-front with local authorities about the project to set up “industrial hemp production”.
“This plantation is an open-air plantation. There’s no secret,” said Thein Than Oo.
Reuters has reviewed a letter signed by a Mandalay regional official granting a company named IIIM permission to grow hemp, produce oil, and to dry and package hemp for export in an industrial zone.
Todoroki was doing research at the plantation for IIIM, Thein Than Oo said. Reuters was unable to reach representatives of IIIM.
Hemp refers to a cannabis plant with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol - one of the psychoactive chemicals in marijuana - that is grown for its fibres or for an oil believed to provide health benefits.
It is unclear whether Myanmar law distinguishes hemp from marijuana. Courts in Myanmar regularly hand down lengthy jail sentences for possession of the narcotic.
“There’s never been a case like this in Myanmar,” Thein Than Oo said.
Police said they discovered equipment, chemicals and nearly 350,000 plants at the plantation, along with 1,804 grams of “marijuana oil” and 270 kg of “marijuana”.
Zaw Win, a local administrator, said he should have received a copy of any permission letter for the plantation, but had not.
“Police are now investigating according to police procedure,” he said.
Lawyer Thein Than Oo said Todoroki had contacted him before his arrest out of concern the social media posts would draw the attention of authorities.
Thein Than Oo had set up a meeting between Todoroki and the chief minister of Mandalay to explain the project, he said, but the American was arrested before the meeting could take place.
Reuters was unable to reach officials in the Mandalay regional government on Friday.
Todoroki had been remanded in custody and was in hospital receiving treatment for heat stroke on Friday, but police would not allow him to speak to a reporter by phone, said the lawyer.
“In two weeks he must be brought to the court” along with the two Myanmar nationals, the lawyer said.
A second American also wanted in the case was Todoroki’s son, who was not currently in Myanmar, Thein Than Oo said.
Reporting by Simon Lewis, Thu Thu Aung and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Nick Macfie