In January 2020, the BBC released an interview with a young Vietnamese boy, Ba, who provided a detailed account of his horrifying experience of being kidnapped from his life as a homeless child and forcefully transported from Vietnam to the UK in a series of lorries and vans. Blindfolded, beaten, and burned, Ba was brought to the UK by traffickers to use him as a “gardener” – a forced labourer – in the UK’s cannabis trade. Tucked away in a remote house, he tended to cannabis plants. Instead of financial payment for his work, he received brutal punishment whenever a plant died. Ba had become a slave within the booming industry of illegal cannabis production.
Like Ba, thousands of vulnerable individuals have become victims of human trafficking and modern slavery for the purpose of cannabis production in the UK. Research by Transform Drugs Policy Foundation found that “1,853 potential victims of trafficking or slavery were referred to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (the government’s process for identifying victims of modern slavery) in 2019, specifically in relation to forced cannabis cultivation or county lines drug supply. Over 60% of these were children. A total of 10,627 referrals were made in 2019, meaning that the illegal drug trade makes up nearly a fifth of human trafficking and slavery in the UK.”
Transform Drug Policy Foundation suspects that there are more victims than have been reported. They suggest that it is possible that 17,000 people are currently being exploited as part of the illegal drug trade.
Nick Walton, Coordinator at West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network, described the individuals commonly trafficked into UK cannabis production: “Currently, the trends seem to suggest a propensity towards the exploitation of Vietnamese, Albanian and some UK nationals. The exploiters are often of the same nationality, although there is some evidence of cross-pollination. The victims are generally young adult males, often coerced due to some form of debt bondage. The latter can be attributed to costs owed to people smugglers or may come as a consequence of debts owed to organised crime groups, perhaps attributable to drug debts.”
Traffickers thrive on the illegality of drugs in the UK. Currently, the UK has prohibited the production, sale, and distribution of cannabis. However, it is widely known that cannabis continues to be used in the UK, regardless of its illegality, and that many are advocating for its legalisation. It is estimated that the UK drug market has a current value of 9.4 billion pounds and the cannabis industry alone is worth 2 billion pounds. People are certainly using cannabis in the UK, but who’s producing and selling it?
“Nearly one-third of people in England and Wales report using cannabis during their lifetime”, Harvey Slade of Transform Drug Policy Foundation stated. He continued: “But there is currently no legal source for consumers to access non-medical cannabis. With demand still high, buyers have to turn to the illegal market.”
Criminals, traffickers, and gangs have practically been handed an easy way to make a lot of profit. As long as they can stay undercover and avoid detection, they can rake in money.
The illegality of cannabis also provides traffickers with the ability to further control their victims. Victims will be told that any attempt to engage with the authorities will lead to their arrest and/or potential imprisonment. Additionally, if a victim has illegal immigration status, the trafficker can threaten to report them to the police if they cause any trouble. Hidden in abandoned houses and flats, threatened with force and legal action, vulnerable victims are suffering from the effects of drug prohibition.
For all these reasons, it has been suggested by several researchers and cannabis advocates that regulating cannabis could provide an avenue for minimising human trafficking into the production of cannabis. Transform Drugs Policy Foundation stated in their report that “by legally regulating the drug trade, both the opportunity and profit motive for organised crime will diminish and the scope for trafficking and exploitation will reduce significantly.”
Eric Goepel, Founder & CEO, Veterans Cannabis Coalition, suggests that ending regulation is only the first step to protecting vulnerable individuals. “Simply ending prohibition will at least end the criminalization of individual possession, but so long as the law still treats cannabis as an extraordinary good befitting government control somewhere between firearms and nuclear material it will continue to fuel illicit activity and harm people. If nations want to go further and restore those harmed by prohibition, as we and many others advocate for in the U.S., like expunging cannabis-related convictions, eliminating discriminatory language linked to cannabis use in areas of law like employment or immigration, and otherwise normalizing cannabis as a medicine and consumer product they will need to take positive steps to do so. But if regulations result in cannabis that is largely inaccessible (due to permitting or other restrictions) and unaffordable due to taxes, the incentive for organized crime will remain.”
In countries where cannabis is regulated, such as in Uruguay and Canada, labour standards can be controlled and monitored to protect workers’ rights and prevent exploitation in the supply chain. Bringing cannabis production into the light dissuades traffickers, who crave anonymity, large profits, and secrecy, from using the cannabis industry to exploit individuals.
Drugs were prohibited to keep people safe, but the last 50 years of criminalising people who use and sell drugs have not worked to achieve that goal. In the case of cannabis production in the UK, it could be said that the prohibition of cannabis production has endangered vulnerable individuals to the evil of human trafficking.
Legalisation and regulation would by no means be a quick or total fix, but it would at least take much of the control of the drug trade out of criminal hands, reducing the number of people exploited through cannabis production and sale.
Ba managed to escape from his trafficker and tell his story to bring attention to the brutalities and facts about human trafficking in the production of cannabis in the UK. How will his story be used as a catalyst for change? Possibly, regulation.