Cannabis cultivation features regularly in the British media: as entertainment (Attack the Block, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Saving Grace being just three examples of successful British films with a cannabis cultivation theme), but more often as 'news'. Stories about cannabis growing often focus on the alleged links between domestic cultivation, the apparent increased potency of a type of cannabis that the media (albeit erroneously) likes to call 'skunk', and supposed links to health problems such as schizophrenia. Alternatively they focus on possible links between cannabis growing and crime - including organised crime. Occasionally there is a human interest aspect, but mostly cannabis cultivators are portrayed as drug dealers and as criminals - evils to be confronted and punished by society. But just how accurate are these stereotypes?
Consider two recent stories about cannabis growing in the UK. A headline in the local newspaper The Argus proclaimed "A Cannabis Factory in Every Street" in Brighton, suggesting organized networks of dealers supplied by a small army of growers across the city. Meanwhile The Guardian (amongst other outlets) reported "Couple who helped Kenyan village with cannabis profits jailed": a sophisticated growing operation run by a couple in their 60s generated hundreds of thousands of pounds, the bulk of which was actually diverted to life-saving charitable causes. They face a total of six years in prison.
As a Brighton resident and somebody who knows a bit about cannabis cultivation, I have no doubt there are a lot of people in my city (and, for that matter, most others) who grow or have grown marijuana. Whether all or even most of these are supplying organised "gangs" of dealers, as implied by the story, I doubt very much. My own research in the UK (published in book form as Weed, Need and Greed) suggests that whilst some cannabis cultivation might be linked to some organised crime, the vast majority of those who grow cannabis are not. Indeed, many growers explicitly seek to avoid 'real' dealers and cultivate precisely so they and their friends can avoid contact with the criminal-run black market. Others are motivated by ideological or altruistic rather than financial concerns, such as the couple who sent their profits to Kenya or those who grow cannabis for others who find its medical properties invaluable for treating a range of debilitating conditions. In short, for most growers are motivated by an affiliation with the ideology of 'weed', or some kind of practical or altruistic 'need', rather than by financial 'greed'.
Are all cannabis growers criminals? Well yes, by strict definition: under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 cannabis growing is criminalised as both production and cultivation. Growing cannabis plants may also be evidence of possession, supply or intent to supply. However whether all cannabis growers are involved in other types of crime, or in organised drug distribution, or should be subject to criminal penalties are other questions. It seems obvious that laws and policies should be based on evidence rather than media-perpetuated stereotypes; that punishments, when crimes are committed, should be in proportion to harm done rather than excessive or draconian, and; that the decision by society to label an individual citizen 'criminal' should not be taken lightly.
Policy makers need a better understanding of who actually grows cannabis in the UK, of how they do it, and of why they do it. This is why I along with Cameron Adams and Axel Klein of the University of Kent are looking for individuals who have grown cannabis in the UK to participate in a (strictly anonymous) online survey. We hope our research will help paint a picture of the realities of cannabis growing in the UK which will feed into future sensible policy making. What is more, we are working with colleagues across the world - the Global Cannabis Cultivation Research Consortium (the World Wide Weed research group) - to conduct similar surveys in a number of countries to see how cannabis cultivation manifests itself under different policy regimes.
To find out more - and to participate in our research - click here. All survey responses are strictly anonymous, we do not ask for any personal data or contact details, and we do NOT record your IP address.