The new National Drug Strategy, published in July this year, sets out how the Home Office, police, health and education services intend to tackle drugs for the foreseeable future. While it is a general strategy, some particular issues relating to specific drugs are addressed in it, and with cannabis being the most popular controlled drug in the country, it follows that it is also one of the most directly mentioned drugs in the report. Only heroin receives more specific attention, which is understandable considering it is responsible for more deaths in the UK than all other illegal drugs combined.
There are issues specific to cannabis that urgently need addressing: The dramatic and continuing rise in presentations for problematic cannabis use at drug treatment centres seen in recent years. The near ubiquity of high THC, low CBD street cannabis in the UK market, and the ease with which our young people can access it. The recent surge in drug related mental health admissions to hospitals, which has been attributed largely to the prevalence of high potency cannabis. The postcode lottery of enforcement for cannabis possession, with some police forces continuing to pursue arrests in significant numbers, while others have deprioritised possession offences and implemented progressive diversion schemes.
Sadly, not one of these issues is even acknowledged in the strategy. The sole area in which cannabis receives special mention is in reference to its production, specifically the shutting down of illegal cannabis farms. Cannabis farms are undoubtedly a major concern, located in council houses, abandoned shops and warehouses, or even the odd nuclear bunker, run by organised crime groups and often staffed by trafficked children and young adults, kept as slaves in dangerous conditions. Many farms are rewired to steal the huge amounts of electricity needed to facilitate intense, indoor growing, creating major fire risks, while the constant high humidity conditions inside the farms can lead to respiratory diseases in those constantly exposed to them.
The Drug Strategy resolves to tackle the problem of cannabis farms with renewed vigour, with the National Police Chiefs’ Council tasked with closely monitoring the scale of the problem, refreshing the guidance for police forces, and ensuring police are appropriately trained to deal with the issue, particularly where safeguards are needed for the vulnerable people forced to work in the farms.
So far, however, the vision of a more effective enforcement approach doesn’t seem to to be matching the reality. With police budgets stretched ever further, the police helicopters needed for detecting farms can’t be flown, and the forensic evidence needed to for effectively pursue cases is all the more often not being collected, according to drug expert witness Matthew Atha in a Daily Mail feature on the issue last month. The Mail reports a drastic drop in court cases relating to cannabis cultivation on 87 percent since 2011, while raids on farms has fallen by over a third since 2010.
While the drop in court cases may partially be explained by police exercising greater sensitivity around charging people forced to grow cannabis against their will, continued funding cuts are clearly also having an impact on the ability of police to effectively tackle cannabis farms. With many farms run by organised crime gangs who keep their own involvement in the cultivation process at arms length, far greater resources would be needed to mount effective operations that target those profiting from the farms, rather than those simply tasked with the hands on job of growing the plants.
The NPCC has it work cut out if it hopes to fulfil the aims of the Drug Strategy. Improved training and guidance for police forces hoping to tackle cannabis farms may ensure that when a farm is raided, the police follow the correct procedures, but with fewer farms raided year on year, and new farms springing up as quickly as the plants inside them, it is hard to see how these objectives hope to effectively resolve the situation. While cannabis farms remain a lucrative and relatively low-risk investment for organised crime groups, inevitable in an illegal market, police face a Sisyphean task trying to eradicate them.
Raquel Morton is a staff writer for Volteface