Is organised crime ruining our hopes for a home-grown future?
By Carly Barton
Are criminal gangs ruining our chances for a homegrown future? We talked to two ethical suppliers to find out.
What are we talking about?
Firstly, let’s define what we mean by ‘organised crime’. There are often two types of cultivators of cannabis, the first is small home-growers who could be seen as similar to the local farm shop stall -they cultivate with care and often support a couple of patients providing good quality plants and extracts to support their health conditions.
The second kind is the much more nefarious, organised, profit-driven cannabis farm which is potentially causing damage to the case for the home-grower.
With the institute of economic affairs estimating that the current illicit UK cannabis market is worth over £2.5 billion, opportunities exist for large organised crime groups to profit from this area. Sadly, we are all familiar with the stories of young children, hopeful immigrants and even vulnerable adults becoming enslaved in a situation whereby they become entrapped as grow-keepers for organised crime groups who are involved in the mass cultivation of cannabis, the cuckooing of locations and the transportation of large amounts of cannabis over county lines.
Photo credit: Educare
More recently, we are hearing of cannabis farm theft which involves armed gangs being tasked with raiding these cannabis farms to take the plants and profit from their exploits. Scenes of bloodshed and loss of lives have resulted from these violent attacks between the defenders of the farm, usually those who have been enslaved, and the armed gangs. As recently as this month, Vice magazine have detailed a number of these known cases. Because these are ‘criminal on criminal’ offences, they are largely undetected by authorities unless injury or homicide occurs. For many involved in cannabis farms, the fear of the criminal gangs is far greater than their fear of the police.
The vice article indicates that some home-growers are also being targeted by armed gangs who use heat sensors and other intelligence to locate smaller cannabis grows. These gangs are breaking into homes and stealing plants leaving the victims of these crimes in a terrifying position: if they report the break in, the authorities have evidence to prosecute for the cultivation of cannabis. It is indeed a sad day when the judicial system supports these violent crimes in favour of the armed criminal who has forcibly entered a property, caused distress to families in their homes and stolen their invaluable medicine.
We often hear from the prosecution service and some members of parliament that cannabis ‘causes harm to communities’. There is an alternative argument that would suggest that the prohibition of cannabis is of more harm to communities because the current regulations are criminalising people for taking a substance that contributes positively to their health. But is there truth to the statement in another context? Is organised crime involvement and damage causing a blockade for a review of the regulations around home growing? Is the dark, exploitative edge of this market spoiling the chances for experts with better intentions in this space? We think so.
We spoke to two home growers, one (person A) is a supplier of high-quality medicine for his own and others’ medicinal consumption, the other (person B) creates bespoke medicine for patients with different conditions. Both of these growers dedicate their time, energy and resources to supporting patients.
Person A is a cancer patient living with chronic pain.
Photo credit: Devinkk
Q: You have been cultivating your own medicine for many years, how has that been? Do you still enjoy the process?
A: I feel so very grateful to be able to cultivate a plant that has so many healing properties. I grow my plants with love and care because they are the only thing that help me with the chronic pain. I always grow organically and although this adds to the cost, it gives me the knowledge that my cannabis is as safe as possible. I feel much more connected to my plants than I do to a white opioid-derived pill prescribed by my consultant. Being able to grow puts me in a position where I feel more responsible and more proactive about my own health and my own healing. I feel that this is really powerful for the healing process because I am providing myself and others with a clean and safe product, free from contaminants. I tend to grow from seeds and cuttings. Over the years I have tried many different strains and I have found that some work better than others. Now that I have selected my most pain-relieving strains, I tend to grow these regularly. I grow cannabis to keep the cost down for my personal use.
Q: The majority of your product treats your health and additional product goes to a supplier who provides medicine to the wider community. Is it important to you how it is used?
A: It is very important to me that the cannabis is consumed by those whose health is improved by it.
We all have an endocannabinoid system which regulates many aspects of our health so you could say that anyone consuming cannabis will get these effects in their endocannabinoid system. For me though, I want the medicine to go to patients who need it. I personally support a number of epilepsy patients and cancer patients. I give the rest to a supplier who uses it to make products such as oils and topical balms for a number of patients treating cancer, endometriosis, multiple sclerosis and spasticity, Parkinson’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and FND.
Q: How do you feel about organised crime grow operations? Do you feel this is in any way disrespectful to the plant?
A: I am fearful of organised crime and its impact on people and there are some terrible stories about this. I feel that the love, respect and care that I put into my grow, by making it organic and keeping it well cared for, enhances its healing properties. Plants in illicit cannabis farms are grown in fear and for profit. There are very different intentions behind my grow compared to an illicit cannabis farm grow. I would like to be able to grow my plants safely without the worry of having my medicine taken away by a criminal gang or by the police. This is why I would welcome some kind of regulation or license for growing on medicinal grounds. This could help to put an end to organised criminals using the plant and the people for profit which I find disrespectful to the plant. The plant was not intended to be used as a mechanism for profit. It grows freely in many regions around the world.
Q: How much would it change your life if the law around home cultivation changed for the better?
A: My life would be transformed for the better. Cannabis has kept me alive and has helped me to be able to manage my pain for years now. I am frustrated that I would be treated as a criminal when I am trying to heal myself and support others in their healing.
Person B is an expert in supporting people with terminal cancer diagnoses.
Photo credit: Blinder films
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you do and who you supply?
A: I help people who the medical profession have written off. Those who have been told by their consultants that there is nothing more that can be done to help them -that their cancer has spread so widely and is so aggressive that they should go home and get their affairs in order because their medicine can do nothing more for them.
Q: In many other countries you would be considered an expert in your field, how does it feel to be considered a criminal in the country in which you call home?
A: It is incredibly frustrating! I am supporting patients and their families who are given the worst possible news. These people need help and I am compelled to support them. I have spent much time studying and working with doctors in other countries where cannabis is a popular and successful treatment for patients with cancer. They have shared their knowledge and expertise with me so I always have a doctor to contact if, and when, I need. I ensure that the oil that I make is lab tested and is of a high standard so that I know that my patients have good quality medicine. More recently, I have had conversations with doctors treating patients in the UK and have found that some are receptive to me talking to them about cannabis and cancer. In some cases, I have been allowed into hospitals to treat patients with cannabis oil and have discussed this with their consultant. This was before the pandemic. I also teach people to make their own medicine. It is far better to use a product that has been grown with care so I do recommend home growing, but sometimes, the patient doesn’t have enough time to grow their own and I need to use cannabis that is sourced through people that I know. I would be extremely reluctant to use cannabis of an unknown origin.
Q: Given the option, would you like to operate legally and pay taxes? If so, do you feel organised crime is causing issues in getting that kind of regulation over the line?
A: Quite simply, yes and yes! Organised crime causes many issues which invite comparison to the work that I do which is quite different! Since supporting patients, there have been many successes and changes to their outcomes thanks to this wonderful plant and its healing properties. This plant is and can be miraculous. Much evidence about medicinal cannabis and cancer is suppressed in the UK, yet widely available in other parts of the world. This adds to the stigma of cannabis. Many of my patients consume cannabis as a last resort but if they had consumed it earlier, along with making other lifestyle changes, it is likely that their disease may not have progressed to the point of stage 4.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
A: I don’t want to be seen as a criminal for helping and supporting people to recover from disease. While we have large groups of organised criminals profiteering and enslaving others for further monetary gain, the narrative will not change. I would like to see home growers, for medicinal purposes, having the freedom and the safety to be able to grow and make their own medicine.
It is clear that there are many good and genuine souls in the cannabis space who take legal and personal risks to help and support people with a range of conditions.
There are many patients who attribute their improvement in health to these knowledgeable individuals who have given them hope at a time of despair. There are also those who would cast aspersions over these individuals, claiming that they have had no medical training, but when all hope feels lost and medical treatments fail -the responsibility of healing often falls to the patient and their close family and friends. Desperate to try anything, they will trustingly reach out to the community online. Because this whole area is underground and unregulated, we often hear stories of individuals claiming to have these good intentions yet are offering to sell cannabis online without delivering the support or the quality products that they take payment for. This makes it incredibly difficult to find the ‘real’ experts because many are working as stealthily as possible to maintain their privacy and freedom but there is a real need for these genuine experts. While the law does not support them and their work, they must remain underground.
Finding a genuinely knowledgeable and caring supplier is far more difficult than joining a facebook group and asking for an oil maker. Stigma around cannabis still plays a huge part in the issue of cannabinoids and health in the UK -and this is institutional- it is tied up in the training of doctors, healthcare, government, pharmaceuticals, investment and capital. In the UK, you can practice herbalism after studying and completing a four-year diploma. This enables you to support patients with a range of medical issues and to prescribe and suggest a range of herbal tinctures and preparations to support their healing yet you cannot legally support people with cannabis - one of the very first plants recognised for its healing properties.
On the most simple level, if we look at the intentions behind the people who are trying to help others and are trying to make a change, we can gain a clearer understanding. Similarly, if we look at the intentions behind organised crime and cannabis farms, we can see that profit and gain are the driving force behind the cannabis farms involving cruel exploitation of vulnerable people. At Cancard, if we were given the choice to choose an ethically sourced and locally grown product, we would certainly choose this option over a product of unknown origin.
'The illicit market has had to adapt to meet the requirements of people consuming for health reasons. While there is still lots of darkness in mass cultivation for profit, we also have some truly wonderful souls in this space. These people go above and beyond to support people and provide excellent advice based on their many years of research and experience. It saddens me that these people are living in fear of criminalisation for stepping in where our health service hasn't been able to meet people's needs, or, hasn't embraced breakthroughs in understanding this medicine as efficiently as other countries. I would love to see these people offered the opportunity to share their knowledge and work in the space that is their specialism. I want them to be afforded the same respect as any professional working in an expert area. Unfortunately, movement on this issue is tough while we still have criminal organisations tainting the space with violence. Decriminalisation and regulation has been held up by nervousness around exploitation. We may never rid ourselves of the shadow of a criminal market that prohibition has created, but surely while the current situation is not being managed by perpetuating the rhetoric that is ‘the war on drugs’ - we have a duty of care to try. It would make sense to me to allow cannabis to be farmed and sold much like the produce from the local vegetable market. Kale has many medicinal and health benefits, but no one is beating anyone up to control the kale market. It would be great to see some kind of pilot initiative whereby licenses were granted on small community operations to trial the impact of providing a market that steers clear of the chaos of criminal involvement. I'm sure that given the choice, people would opt to purchase their medicine from an ethical supplier.'