Slavery in Cannabis: An Unseen Industry Issue

Writing for The Telegraph, British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced her intention to wipe out modern slavery, calling it “the great Human Rights issue of our time.”

In her article, she is full of praise for the work she and others have done in the recent past, and in fairness she does deserve some credit on this front. A year ago, she brought in the Modern Slavery Act – the first of its kind in Europe – which “delivered tough new penalties to put slave masters behind bars where they belong, with life sentences for the worst offenders.”

Then, rather than resting on her laurels, May commissioned an independent review into how the Act is working, and has now committed to setting up the first ever government task-force on modern slavery. She has appointed an anti-slavery commissioner – the first in the world – to cooperate with other countries, created an International Modern Slavery Fund, and even got the eradication of modern slavery into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

All of these measures deserve to be applauded, addressing as they do one of the most important social challenges of our time. Theresa May can pat herself on the back, but if she really wants to make a lasting impact in this area, there’s one issue she needs to address with some urgency. Nowhere in the article she penned for the Telegraph does she make mention of a key aspect of modern slavery: cannabis farms.

A report by the National Police Chiefs Council, released last year, found that cannabis farms continue to fuel human trafficking and modern slavery. The report stated that, “Despite research showing a move towards British nationals cultivating cannabis on a commercial scale, we continue to see links between residents without legal permission to remain in the UK and the cultivation of cannabis.

“Convictions suggest that individuals continue to be smuggled into the UK and employed as gardeners for large cannabis grows.”

Trafficking and slavery of this kind is happening on a large scale in the UK, and is a significant part of the modern slavery issue as a whole. So why is it being ignored by Theresa May, even as she announces further crackdowns?

The obvious answer is that the Prime Minister simply does not want to face up to the problem. Legalising cannabis would play a key role in halting the spread of modern slavery, but would go against one of the former Home Secretary’s core beliefs: that the UK’s drug policies are working, and that legalisation should not even be considered. She is putting her dogmatic support of prohibition ahead of her supposed support for serious action on modern slavery.

One of the key messages in May’s article for the Telegraph was that “These crimes must be stopped and the victims of modern slavery must go free.” But the truth is that when it comes to the slavery of cannabis farmers, her view is much less caring.

As recently as March of this year, three Vietnamese men were jailed for two years after being discovered at a cannabis farm in Coventry. They will be deported following their jail sentences, despite the fact that they had all been smuggled into the country to work illegally, either to pay off debts owed by their families back home, or by shady ‘employment agencies’ run by criminal gangs.

Then, in June, two men were deported following the discovery of a cannabis farm in Gateshead. This may seem like a more humane approach than imprisonment, but in reality they are in all likelihood simply being sent back to the same desperate situation that led them to this country, and enslavement, in the first place. Stories such as these occur up and down the country with alarming regularity, and are by no means unusual.

These are exactly the kind of people that the Prime Minister claims she wants to help. They are the victims of modern slavery who should, in her own words, “go free.” And yet she apparently has no desire to help them at all, simply because her moralistic view of drugs prevents her from seeing them as victims, and from seeing that the key to stopping what is one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery, is drug law reform.

If Theresa May is serious about combatting modern slavery, then the legalisation of cannabis must play a role. It would deprive criminal gangs of a key source of income which they use to fund other aspects of their criminality, and would remove one of the most ubiquitous destinations for modern slaves from the equation. But in order for that to happen, she must first get past her own deep-seated and anti-scientific hatred of drugs and drug users, and judging by her record as Home Secretary, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. In that sense, her crusade against slavery may have been doomed before it even began.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, and his own blog,


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