* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Instead of cannabis being available in a controlled legal supply model, a large amount is produced by vulnerable people trafficked from abroad
Harvey Slade is Research and Policy Officer for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation
Last year, nearly two thousand potential victims of slavery or trafficking identified in the UK were exploited directly as a result of the illegal drug trade. Two thirds were children. With no legal avenues to meet demand, the drug market has been gifted to organised crime groups who are exploiting young and vulnerable people to cut costs and avoid risk of detection.
There has rightfully been outrage at the recent Boohoo scandal. The idea that people could be subject to labour exploitation in the UK, in plain sight, is outrageous. As with slavery in the illegal drug trade, this exploitation stems from an unchecked desire to maximise profit. However, unlike with the illegal drug trade, we can respond effectively by providing properly funded inspection and monitoring of labour standards.
There can be no such sensible solution for the drug market. Instead, outdated moralistic attitudes to drugs dictate that we must prohibit their production and supply. When the trade nonetheless persists, we must clamp down. Where this in turn fails, we must simply hit crime harder. When we still get nowhere, we must cut the head off the snake. This is despite the fact that, according to the government’s own analysis, ‘unintended consequences’ of enforcing these drug laws include the creation of violence in drug markets.
The drug trade is immensely profitable for organised crime groups, precisely because it is illegal, so long as those running them can avoid this threat of law enforcement. Out of this opportunity, and the corresponding threat, has grown exploitation. Organised crime groups groom and coerce young and vulnerable people because they are harder for police to detect and arrest, are easier to exploit and intimidate, and are readily replaced.
Instead of cannabis being produced by licensed companies operating under strict government rules as in Canada, a large amount of UK cannabis is produced by vulnerable people trafficked from abroad. Over 700 people were identified as potential victims of forced cannabis cultivation in 2019, with many more not found. Some will have died in captivity. Victims are commonly locked in houses around the country, tortured, and told if they call for help then they will be deported.
Instead of drugs being available in a tightly controlled legal supply model, through trained suppliers subject to reporting, inspection and monitoring requirements, as is already the case for legal drugs, they are often transported by young children exploited as part of ‘county lines’ drug dealing. Over 1,100 potential victims of county lines were referred to the UK’s trafficking referral mechanism last year. 1,000 were children.
Worth £10 billion in the UK alone, the illegal drug trade provides unparalleled opportunity for profit — and exploitation. There are no government rules and regulations for market operators and there are no rights for workers. While the Home Office is cutting heads off snakes that turn out to be hydras, young and vulnerable people are being trafficked and enslaved. The Boohoo scandal has highlighted that there is exploitation in legal supply chains too, but the solution is always better regulation, not prohibiting supply. The same is true for drugs. Prohibiting the drug market has simply pushed it out of the scope of government control.
Illegal drugs are already readily available across the UK, without any information on the contents, product strength, or risks. Exploitation is rife in their production and supply, but it does not have to be. By legally regulating the drug market, we can disempower trafficking groups profiting off the illegal drug trade and remove a vital source of revenue bolstering organised crime. We can provide the same strict labour rights we want to afford to those in the textile industry to those in the drug trade. We can provide enhanced inspection mechanisms to prevent exploitation and make sure that the government, not organised crime groups, controls the drug market.
But without regulating the drug market, none of this is possible. It is time to have a frank and open discussion about the scale of labour exploitation that stems directly from drug prohibition, and start proposing the same sensible solutions that we look to apply to legal industries.