“I remember using weed for the first time when I was in Grade 9. At the time, I was only 13 years old,” recalled Boldsaikhan, who served 10 months in the 425th detention centre in Mongolia’s Govisümber province in 2018, at age 21.
“I don’t think there is a certain reason for a person to try drugs. It is what it is. It happened to me because it was supposed to happen, I think.”
Mongolia has a huge drug problem. It is listed as a transit country for illicit drug smuggling between Russia and China. More Mongolians have also been caught with illegal drugs in recent years. In 2006, only 33 people were investigated for drug-related cases but this jumped to 412 in 2018.
One of the most popular drugs is cannabis. Weed grows in about 1,498 hectares of land in eight provinces. From 2013 to 2017, the government spent more than $100,000 of taxpayers’ money just to destroy weed that grows in the wild. It takes the entire summer to get rid of it, only for the plant to grow again the following year.
The government has been cracking down on the weed industry since 2016, but many find its methods to be unreasonably strict. Because all kinds of drugs — from ecstasy to weed, and even cough syrup — are classified under one umbrella, you can get up to two years in prison just for getting stoned, the same sentence for someone who sells meth. The government is now even considering life imprisonment for anyone found to be using any illegal drug.
Many of those caught are imprisoned. Some, end up in the 461st pre-detention centre in the capital city Ulaanbaatar. It’s a harsh place where inmates only have access to sunlight and meetings with visitors for 15 minutes a week. The rest of their time is spent within the boundaries of a cold room shared by four people who eat, live, and use the toilet in the small space. Mongolians as young as 19 years old experience this even if just an ounce of weed is found in their possession.
Dulguun, 20 years old, spent 77 days in this prison for using cannabis and recalls the harrowing experience.
"Once you are there, you are not human. Every prison guard and some inmates bully you with abusive words and constantly belittle you. The smell of the room gets filled with urine and it got to the point where I would vomit whenever someone took a dump.
"It was a completely different world that I never knew existed. There was a woman who murdered her sister’s boyfriend, another who killed her boyfriend after catching him cheating on her, and a thief had a 10-year history. And then there was me, sitting right next to them, only guilty of inhaling a plant that is a hot topic around the world [but still taboo in Mongolia].
"Every morning, I prayed for it to be a dream, yet it wasn’t. Every night, I cried, missing my parents. I wrote lines [in my journal] dedicated to my loved ones. As time went by, I started losing hope and getting used to my situation. It was unclear how much longer I would stay there, but after 77 days, I was released.
This experience transformed into a nightmare I would have every night right after my release. I would wake up and thank God that it was just a nightmare.”
Boldsaikhan had a similar experience.
“I don’t like rehashing the memories from my time in prison. The horrific murder stories, the theft history of hundreds of inmates living under one roof in a caste system, is nothing beautiful to be shared. The only thing that prison let me understand is that when a person’s freedom is restricted, their understanding of freedom is deepened,” he said.
Mongolia’s youth are the most vulnerable under the country’s strict drug laws. Instead of treating drug addiction as a mental health issue, it is heavily criminalised. Many of those imprisoned continue to use drugs after they are released, with some turning to stronger drugs like meth because the punishment for smoking weed is just as harsh.
These photos are part of "Blurred Lines," a photo series by photographer Agnuush about young people who were arrested for using cannabis in Mongolia. Some subjects have been released but others are still in prison.