The court in central Mandalay charged John Frederic Todoroki with violating five sections of the country’s drugs and narcotics law covering possession, sale and trafficking of illegal drugs, lawyer Thein Than Oo said by phone.
The defendants contend they were growing hemp, not marijuana. Both are subspecies of the cannabis plant genus.
However, local police who raided the 20-acre plantation at Myotha Industrial Park in Ngazun township said they found marijuana plants among the industrial hemp.
If convicted of growing narcotics, the defendants face five years in prison. If convicted of trafficking narcotics, they face from 15 years in prison to the death penalty, but the country has not executed any prisoner sentenced to death since 1988.
Todoroki said that his company, III M Nutraceutical, had permission from the Mandalay government to grow hemp for the purpose of processing it into cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-intoxicating compound that many believe has health benefits.
Hemp can be grown legally in many countries, and is often used for making CBD. Myanmar law does not seem to clearly distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
Police said they found about 349,300 marijuana plants, 5200 seedlings, 380 kilograms of marijuana seeds, 1804 grams of marijuana oil, and chemicals and laboratory equipment.
The company said in an April 26 statement that the plants are actually hemp, and its project was approved by the Mandalay government last August for research and development purposes. It said its farm has been growing industrial hemp, kenaf, peppermint, coffee and eucalyptus solely for research, with no sales or distribution.
Another lawyer working on the case, Khin Maung Than, reaffirmed that the company had received official permission for the enterprise because it was growing hemp.
Thein Than Oo said there was nothing deceptive about the project, and any action against the company should be done administratively rather than under the drug laws.
He expressed concern for the health of 63-year-old Todoroki, whom he said had lost considerable weight since being detained in the raid.
The Ngazun township court has scheduled the next hearing in the case for June 4.
Todoroki’s co-defendants are Shein Latt and Shun Lei Myat Noe. When they were in court last week, Shun Lei Myat Noe’s parents said she was a simple worker at the enterprise, ignorant of what was going on and seeking mainly to improve her English-language skills.
Police have said they are also seeking to arrest Alexander Skemp Todoroki. It’s unclear where the Todorokis, believed to be father and son, last lived in the US.
About 100 residents, including company employees, gathered outside the court and called for the release of the defendants.
“My daughter is a cleaner. She got an English degree. She knows nothing and is not guilty. I want her to be released,” said Daw Yi Win, mother of Shun Lei Myat Noe.
Ma Cho, who workers for the company, said it had paid them quite well and given them a lot of other benefits.
“We got K7000 a day. (Todoroki) also gave us pocket money and paid for our medical treatment. I hope he will be released soon,” she said.
Mandalay Chief Minister U Zaw Myint Maung said the company was only given permission to grow hemp.
“Action has been taken according to the law. (The company) submitted an application for industrial hemp. We don’t know anything about the marijuana. We permitted them to only plant hemp.” he said.