Cannabis farms are a modern slavery ’blind spot’ for UK police

Migrants arrested for tending plants in the flats, houses and attics where cannabis is grown in bulk are often victims of trafficking and "debt bondage" - yet many are not recognised as such by police, according to a new study.

Big questions remain about how the criminal justice system should ethically manage modern slavery victims who are also illegal immigrants involved in illegal activity

Heather Strang

Research from Cambridge criminologists suggests that those charged with drug cultivation have often been forced into illegal work as a condition of debt to criminal gangs for smuggling them into the UK.

The researchers, including a Detective Inspector who completed a Masters at Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, argue that police take too narrow a view of modern slavery when it comes to "growers" arrested during cannabis farm raids.

While growers - often Vietnamese nationals - are not always imprisoned within farms, many work under threat of extreme violence towards themselves or family back home, with little in the way of language or contacts in the UK.

The researchers say that arresting officers often lack detailed training on modern slavery, and make only "perfunctory" enquiries: a brief question that places the onus on a victim who doesn’t understand their own situation.

As such, migrants end up serving years in UK prisons despite being forced to commit the cultivation crimes by gangs who seize passports and threaten - and administer - violence.

"The abuses of freedom in cannabis farm cases do not tally with traditional perceptions of slavery. Victims may be held against their will, forced to work and unable to leave, despite an unlocked door," said Prof Heather Strang, the study’s senior author.

"Big questions remain about how the criminal justice system should ethically manage modern slavery victims who are also illegal immigrants involved in illegal activity," she said.

The new study, published in the  Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing , was co-authored by DI Adam Ramiz of Surrey Police as part of his research at Cambridge, where he worked with Strang and Prof Paul Rock from LSE.

Cannabis farms are unassuming abodes in towns and city suburbs that house hundreds of plants in blacked-out rooms, grown with equipment such specialist lighting. A live-in "grower" will work for criminal gangs to feed and protect the Class B drug crop.

The latest study is small in scale - gaining access to growers willing to talk is difficult - but criminologists say that it’s an important addition to this under-researched area.

The team looked at criminal histories of 19 Vietnamese nationals arrested in connection with cannabis farming in Surrey and Sussex between 2014-2017, and conducted in-depth interviews with three further growers - two Vietnamese and an Albanian - as well as the arresting officers in those cases.

The growers all described being in hock to human smugglers, working in farms to pay debts, and some spoke of death threats and physical intimidation. Two spoke of dangerous journeys to the UK via lorries, similar to the 39 Vietnamese nationals found dead in Essex last year.

One witnessed murder by smugglers while trekking for days through forests. Another was locked inside the house once in the UK. The victims didn’t consider themselves such, as they had wanted to come here, yet had been forced into illegal labour on arrival: smuggling that becomes trafficking.

"I do not dare leave the house without telling them, because I fear for my life... They told me if I tried to escape they would harm my family," said the grower.

He remembered police asking some questions about being forced to work, and he had told them. His legal advisor asked no such questions. He did not consider himself a trafficking victim, as he had wanted to come to the UK.

The police interviewer of the grower was a 33-year-old probationary police officer. He had been given an interview plan, and told researchers he viewed the matter in simple terms: "’re interviewing him as a suspect to get a confession, or to get the points across to get the conviction or charge...".

No trafficking questions were in the officer’s plan, but he asked some anyway based on the grower’s response. The officer acknowledged his ignorance of modern slavery legislation to researchers.

A further interview was done by the officer’s supervisor, who was in charge of the investigation. He told researchers the training given to police on slavery - one hour-long session - was insufficient, and until guidance improved they had to rely on instinct.

The officer-in-charge entered a submission to the National Referral Mechanism - the framework set up in 2009 to ensure victims of trafficking receive help. The NRM returned a decision that the grower had "consented" to the illegal work, so was not a victim, and he was sentenced to prison.