Who's Growing Your Cannabis?
Forced Labor workers could be cultivating your product.
It is doubtful that most people would consume any cannabis that they knew was grown using grossly underpaid, coerced or forced labor. Yet it’s likely the case if you’re buying your cannabis in the unregulated market. In addition to the questionable cultivation practices, toxic pesticides, water theft and environmental degradation left in the wake of many illegal or trespass grows in the national forests — not to mention the dangerous fire hazards prevalent in many smaller indoor grows — it’s not outside the realm of possibility for outlaw cultivators to use underpaid or unpaid labor to grow their crops. Those taken advantage of often don’t speak any English, are isolated from family and friends and kept in the dark about their rights as workers. They often live in squalor and can be subjected to long periods of isolation and abuse. And sometimes, they labor among us without us or the authorities even knowing their status.
This portion of the forced labor population is likely only a small subset of the estimated 28 million people worldwide that are trafficked. A joint report by the International Labor Organization, Walk Free and the International Organization for Migration found an 11% increase in these numbers since 2016, which was attributed to COVID, climate change and civil unrest, a dynamic which has been confirmed in recent raids of illegal grow sites. In these circumstances, newly disenfranchised and vulnerable populations come into contact with traffickers that will bring them into any number of industries, from manufacturing to construction and agriculture, where they will end up exploited, growing the plants that if you’re not careful may end up in your hands.
Trafficking in America
A recent NBC Nightly News expose followed a raid by Riverside County Sheriffs on an illegal grow site, where several employees were arrested. Speaking through an interpreter, those arrested onsite stated that they had initially worked at restaurants before COVID hit, after which they were funneled into growing cannabis in the Mojave Desert. According to the lieutenant in charge of the raid, many of them are working to pay down the debt to the traffickers who smuggled them into the country (This is not always common. According to Derek Marsh of the Global Center for Women and Justice, 80% come to the country legally and end up getting pulled into forced labor.). None of them were told of the work they would do before they ended up at the grow site, nor had any of them gotten paid for their labor. Police estimated that the value of the cannabis found in the site’s 20 grow-houses had a street value of $10 million.
Similar to other human trafficking cases, prosecuting these cases are particularly hard. Many are convinced that their families back home will be hurt or killed if they say anything, or they will be jailed should they go to the authorities. Most human trafficking victims refuse to fight their cases, preferring to go back home rather than remain in the country for a lengthy legal battle. Some will even deny that they’ve been trafficked. Most of the time, employees can only be charged with withholding pay, although for cannabis, additional federal charges are possible.
Forced labor is not just a problem in the US. The UK has a longstanding problem with trafficked individuals, usually Vietnamese, forced to grow cannabis in isolated grow-houses throughout the country. Like their American counterparts, they are forced to work off their debt for being brought to the UK. They are also told that they may end up in jail if they are caught by the authorities, regardless of the coercion they face. This does happen in some cases — a 2019 Guardian article details the ordeals of a Vietnamese national named Minh, who, after being arrested during a raid of a Chesterfield grow-house, was detained twice, once on the cannabis charges, and the next on immigration violations — even though he had been identified as a victim of slavery. A 2020 paper on UK cannabis farms highlighted the difficulty police interrogators can face in determining such cases, particularly when detainees are advised not to answer questions and plea for lesser sentences.
Such is the status quo of the cannabis underworld, one that is increasingly less defensible, the more one knows about it. For no matter how much money you might save by buying outside a legal dispensary, somebody always ends up paying the difference. Is it worth it?