In the first of a two-part feature series, PETER FROST reports on a fast-growing, if unusual, side of British farming.
Whenever I have written about farming recently the themes have been depressingly similar. Small, family farms have been driven into bankruptcy by tough deals with greedy supermarkets. Farmland is sold off to big business and farmhouses and paddocks become country retreats for the rich.
So I was somewhat surprised to discover that thousands of new and sometimes tiny farms were springing up all over the country and all, it seems, dedicated to growing just one crop.
That crop is Cannabis sativa, or a variety of that species called Cannabis indica — you might know either as marijuana, weed or even wacky baccy and a score of other names.
These farms have turned up in the most unlikely places. Domestic flats and houses are a common choice but other locations have included the secret basement of a Luton supermarket, a redundant Barclays Bank, an empty GP surgery, a vast Welsh sports centre and even an underground nuclear bunker.
Cannabis sativa has always grown naturally in many parts of the world. As early as 440BC the Greek historian Herodotus reported Scythians enjoying cannabis steam baths.
Today cannabis is a popular recreational drug in Britain and most of the world. Only alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are more popular.
Its use has been restricted in Britain since 1928 and became popular in the 1960s — so much so that by 1971 its increasing popularity led to stricter legal control.
The plant has always been cultivated for use as a hemp fibre for ropes and strong fabrics — sailing ships needed tons of this hemp for sails and riggings.
Because hempen ropes were fundamental to the English navy, king Henry VIII demanded in 1533 that all landowners should grow some hemp. Elizabeth I later increased those quotas.
Hemp became a very important part of the British economy both at home and across the empire and the demand was part of the driving force to colonise an ever-expanding empire.
Hardy and easy to cultivate, it became an ideal crop to grow in many of the new British colonies. With so much of it growing as a commercial crop, it is no surprise that local people soon discovered the joys of smoking the plant.
Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy brought a quantity of cannabis with him on his return from Bengal in 1842 and it soon gained popularity in Britain.
Cannabis prohibition began earlier in Britain’s colonies than in Britain itself — attempts at criminalising it in British India were first made in 1838, 1871 and 1877.
The drug was banned in Jamaica in 1913, in Sierra Leone in 1920 and in South Africa in 1922.
It wasn’t until 1928 that Britain itself first prohibited cannabis use as a drug, adding it as an addendum to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. But cultivation was not illegal and the plant was even popular as a decorative garden plant.
In the 1920s and ’30s racist stereotyping dominated arguments about the drug. Black sailors and theatrical performers were blamed for the drug’s use, but in a 1950 cannabis raid on a Soho club all those arrested were young white men.
With changing youth culture, cannabis arrests in Britain increased dramatically — the 235 made in 1960 had grown to 4,683 by 1970 and by 1973 marijuana possession convictions had topped 11,000 a year.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, first listed cannabis as Class B to be reduced from 2004 to 2009 to Class C — a less-harmful category — before being moved back to Class B.
Today most of the cannabis consumed in Britain is cultivated here. It will grow outside in summer but much more is grown under artificial lighting inside heated buildings.
Many of the criminal gangs that set up these illegal cannabis farms use slave labour. These workers are often very young men trafficked from Vietnam or Afghanistan. These teenage slaves are locked in where the plants are grown and given only survival rations.
Many farms steal unmetered electricity and unsafe wiring can cause fires. There have been many cases where the slave labourers have died locked in the farms as they burnt to the ground. The criminals who run the farms are rarely caught.
Today, according to the Home Office, it is illegal to possess cannabis in any form. In reality the situation is less clear. Cannabis production and dealing has penalties of up to 14 years’ prison, an unlimited fine or both.
The maximum penalty for use of cannabis is five years in prison and an unlimited fine. More commonly a warning can be issued for small amounts held for personal use.
In 2015, County Durham police announced that they will no longer be targeting people who grow cannabis for personal consumption. Other police forces are implementing similar schemes.
The latest figures suggest that nearly half a million people are growing small quantities of cannabis — usually less than 10 plants — for their own use. Most avoid prosecution although sometimes plants are confiscated by police. A bigger threat to these small producers is theft by other cannabis users or dealers.
Add these small production units to the large commercial farms set up by the criminal gangs and Britain has become not just self-sufficient in production but also is now exporting the drug.
- In part two of this feature, to be published next week, we’ll examine the campaign to legalise cannabis for medical use in Britain and worldwide.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 28 July 2017.