Like many other things used by those in power to terrify us (young people, crime, immigration) cannabis use in the UK is actually slowly declining. Quite why this should be the case in a society blighted by boredom and poverty no-one is quite sure. Thankfully, over the last decade we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of broad public opinion in that most people don’t fall for Reefer Madness style notions much anymore. The fact is, most folks have probably tried it and a large chunk of the population (between 10-15%) confess to having done so within the last 12 months. Society hasn’t fallen off a cliff yet and it’s been like this since the 60s. But the nice, cosy, middle class arguments about freeing the weed (man) only go so far. Most crucially the fuzzy “decriminalisation for personal use” idea does nothing to deal with one of the biggest problems associated with cannabis – its production and sale. What little evidence we have (something else severally limited by us all having to pretend it isn’t there) points to the fact that it’s not people having a puff that damages society as a whole. It certainly isn’t what you might call healthy. But there is a darker side that needs to be examined, not least because it should form the single most compelling argument for why cannabis production and distribution needs to be taken out of private hands.
It’s a well told tale that all the money from cannabis goes to gangs, probably terrorists. In Glasgow, which specific terrorists has traditionally varied from place to place. If you’re an attendee of Our Lady of the Weegie, the story was usually that it’s UVF gangsters. If you go to John Knox Academy, you’re told it’s the RA. These days I’m assured we’ve gotten over our sectarian blight and every schoolchild is made to believe that drugs are all the work of those Gordon Brown calls “Alcky Eeda.” While there’s no doubt that hardmen in the schemes (who may or may not have flegs tattooed on their foreheads) make a fortune from hawking crap drugs on some of the poorest people in society it’s important to look higher up the chain to get a clearer picture.
Traditionally, cannabis was mainly imported. Most of the actual weed never got further North than the M25. In Scotland, this meant the great tradition of “soap bar” (low quality resin often mixed with plastic/boot polish/bits of old mud). Over the last decade the old soap has (thankfully) been on the way out, as has large scale importing. This old business model was fraught with danger and more importantly for the shrewd businessmen who run the joints was very expensive and inefficient. As a result domestic production has flourished. Estimates vary but the suggestion is that up to 90% of cannabis is now grown domestically whereas a decade ago around 90% was imported. But it’s not been cosy Saving Grace style ladies sneaking weed in amongst their tomatoes plants and accidentally getting the minister’s wife high at the Church fete with their special brownies. For a variety of reasons the current production model favours small scale “factories.” Often set up in pokey flats, these demand and more importantly attract less attention than building a massive warehouse at the side of a motorway and hooking it up to the National Grid. The penalties for being caught growing a moderate amount in a flat are significantly lower than for being caught in full on industrial facilities. Spreading their wares also allows the gangs to have a degree of insurance against getting busted or losing a crop.
In 2004 police started to notice a pattern when these factories were raided. More and more, the people who they found there were not “gang members” in the traditional sense. Children, often trafficked from Vietnam now form the backbone of those who actually work producing cannabis in the UK. Although domestic gangs are now increasingly muscling in on distribution, the vast majority still use trafficked “gardeners” from Vietnam to actually produce the crop. This report from Al Jazeera back in 2011 shed light on the conditions of those working in the factories.
Boys and girls – some as young as 13, many not older than 16, are forced to work as ‘gardeners’, trapped inside the buildings, 24 hours a day, tending and watering the plants behind blacked-out windows with no ventilation. Eating, sleeping and working under heat lamps and exposed daily to toxic chemicals, they run a constant risk of electrocution and fire. And all the time they face the violence, intimidation and extortion of gang members who are determined to wring everything out of them until their debts are paid off – if that day ever comes.
Journalist Mei-Ling McNamara goes on to note that more often than not police still treat these children like they are members of the drugs gangs and not their victims
Moreover, as many of them are psychologically disturbed by the emotional and physical trauma they have experienced, they are often terrified of revealing their stories to the police – not least because of fears that if they talk, their family members back in Vietnam will be punished for their failure to pay off outstanding debts owed to moneylenders connected to the gangs.
Recently there has been a slight shift on this and the First annual report of the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Human Trafficking, published in October last year, noted that these children face incredible difficulties in negotiating the justice and immigration systems which often treat them simply as criminals. Many, too afraid to blow the whistle on the gangs, still face detention and deportation. From the gangs, the drugs filter down to your local dealer in increasingly small portions and less pure forms. The average street dealer may not have anything whatsoever to do with gangs or violence but they are most likely still selling a product made using trafficked child labour.
The profits from all the massive wealth that drugs create is concentrated in a few hands. It’s no suprise that it’s often businesses, banks and the government who benefit most. Dirty money is awash in the system and without it our zombie nation would be in an even worse mess than we currently are. Businesses get a boost from dealers splashing their cash and one way or another drug money always makes its way to the treasury. Banks also benefit from large deposits and laundered money. Between 2003 and 2006 at the height of the bloodbath that was occurring in Mexico’s failed drug war, the US-based Wachovia Bank admitted that it “failed to monitor” transactions totalling $420bn in its Mexican branches. Presumably because they didn’t really care. Gangsters used the accounts to do subtle things like buy massive planes which they loaded with cocaine and flew straight into America. It’s unlikely there are hundreds of billions of pounds worth of luxury jets being purchased at your local branch of HBOS but we have no reason to believe our banks care any more than their US or Mexican counterparts.
Many “legitimate” business people in Scotland used drugs to set up or supplement their businesses. Many of them excercise influence in our political system at all levels. Everyone knows this and yet to say these things leaves we wondering about the future of my kneecaps. There are the perennial whispers which seem to emerge from Glasgow City Chambers every few years with the words “sex”, “drugs”, “construction”, “contracts” and “money” in a seemingly endless rotation. We cannot be certain but it seems like the long arm of Polis Scotland could be grasping at some more collars round these parts sometime soon. Not everyone can be expected to get off as lightly as “Chemical Dependency” Purcell whom everyone seems to have totally forgotten about, largely on the basis that his Labour colleagues said everything was definitely totally fine (or something). I could and should go on but again – kneecaps. On the national scene it’s little better with only a few politicians daring to challenge the status quo on drugs policy. Memories of Scottish politicians basically being called smack hungry junkies by tabloids for suggesting heroine was a health and not a criminal problem may have something to do with it as well. Suffice to say those in power have little interest in rocking the boat when it comes to drugs policy for one reason or another.
So with dealers, businesses, most politicians and the banks on one side it’s pretty clear where the rest of us should be. This isn’t some hippy dippy nonsense about peace or the right of some twat to blow weed smoke in a coppers face in Kelvingrove Park while blasting his shit Dubstep at you. We should never be afraid to talk about the dangers of cannabis in our country because the vast majority of them stem from its legal status and the free market in which it is produced. The decriminalisation brigade will quite happily say that it “doesn’t do any harm” because they don’t really care about the kids who are forced to produce it so long as their own weans don’t get busted. But in reality cannabis does a lot of harm and it needn’t.
It’s time for a mature debate and those of us who support better policies need to shift our priorities away from the traditional focus on those who consume the drug and start looking at its production in much more detail. There is no reason that full legalisation and regulated sale cannot lead to cannabis being produced by individuals, collectives and dare I say even communities. Drug use is decreasing in countries where the laws are more relaxed, like the Netherlands and Portugal. This isn’t about whether something is good or bad; it’s about whether something exists or doesn’t exist. Cannabis exists in our society and will continue to and we cannot just ignore it or shout “boo“ at it in the hope it will go away. I can’t accept that the best way to deal with it is to continue to allow an unsafe, unregulated product to be sold on our streets which causes unnecessary harm to users. And I refuse to accept that production is best left in the hands of criminal gangs enriching themselves by trafficking children.