Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
This study of the domestic cultivation of cannabis is located by the author as ethnography of deviance. Case studies and some first person interview extracts are provided from key informants in addition to a survey of users of a cannabis web forum. The problem of access to the hidden population of cannabis growers has been resolved by Gary Potter's personal contacts that established during his participation in the underground dance music and drug using scene of a South Yorkshire town in the 1990, where he was an undergraduate and then postgraduate student. The study sets out to shed light on the under researched phenomenon of the exponential growth in domestically cultivated cannabis in the UK, which it is estimated may now represent half of all cannabis consumed in this country, contributing between £1.5 and £13 billion to a black market economy. Potter argues that studies of drug markets have hitherto assumed that drugs are imported, dominated at the top by large‐scale dealers with ever increasing numbers of operatives involved in networks of distribution in succeeding layers of the pyramid. Although there are large‐scale commercial growers of cannabis in the UK – and it is thought that 50 per cent of cannabis consumed here is still imported – Potter argues that the domestically cultivated cannabis market is distinguished by widespread, small scale cultivation of cannabis for both recreational and medical use. This phenomenon has developed in the context of an increasingly liberal attitude towards cannabis amongst the general public and notwithstanding the reclassification from C and back to B, tolerance by the police; the widespread availability and cheapness of technology for indoor growing of cannabis; and the development of online cannabis communities where views and knowledge can be easily exchanged.
The pole around which cannabis growers are distinguished is their motivational drive. Potter's key informants are overwhelming not motivated by profit but by a commitment to the growing and sharing of high quality weed. Such motivation includes a sense of the injustice of the illegal status of cannabis and their identification of cannabis as distinct from other drugs. The desire of small scale growers to avoid the criminalising practices of the “evil dealers” who may also sell cocaine and heroin was also identified in the study of domestic cannabis cultivation carried out by Hough et al. (2003) whose recommendations that small scale production be treated on a par with possession of cannabis by the criminal justice system have not been acted upon. Interestingly, although small‐scale growers do, according to research by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit, receive sentences for intent to supply, Potter's informants perceive that they are unlikely to receive custodial sentences for possession of ten plants or below.
Potter makes a distinction between small‐scale growers who are also recreational users of weed and the networks of small scale growers who are driven by medical Need for cannabis, and who are also ideologically driven. Although Potter acknowledges that some ideologically driven growers of cannabis may also occasionally supplement their income by selling some of their crop to friends and associates, he is particularly scathing in his characterisation of the cannabis entrepreneurs who are motivated not by the “sanctity” of cannabis but by greed. These entrepreneurs balance their desire for profit with the risk of arrest and prosecution and may grow and deal cannabis as part of a wider drug dealing business. Potter has fewer case examples of such practices but refers revealingly to Charlie who he typifies somewhat as a gentleman drug dealer, a “young professional” who has a legitimate job, but grows and sells cannabis and other drugs in order to supplement his extravagant lifestyle. Potter's evidence of growers/dealers who are motivated purely by profit and whose practices are more aligned with organised criminals who use violence in the course of their dealing is more anecdotal. He does not consider the social structural factors that may make entrepreneurial drug dealing an attractive proposition in the absence of other employment and educational opportunities. Although he refers to cannabis growers and users spanning the socioeconomic spectrum, Potter's key informants would appear to be predominantly white and university educated. He makes no reference to the links between cannabis and Caribbean culture and makes only a passing reference to the fact that drug markets are male dominated without considering the specific risks that women with children may run in combining cannabis cultivation or use with family life. It is suggested that heavy use (not defined) of cannabis is wholly benign, and Potter makes no reference to its differential impact upon the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable young people for example (Melrose et al., 2007).
In his introduction Potter raises the possibility that ideologically driven, small scale growing and social use characterised by the domestic cannabis market may have relevance to developments in other drug markets. In his conclusion he suggests that, like fair trade of other products, the domestic cannabis market is driven by consumer demand. While Potter argues that the domestic cannabis market may have parallels in the production of ecstasy pills in the UK, he concludes that it is unlikely that coca or opium could be grown in the same way in this country. I would recommend Virginia Berridge's Opium of the People (1986, 1999) in which she described how opium was so widely accepted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that horticultural societies gave awards for growing the poppy and medical practitioners were among the prize‐winners. It was the development of prohibition in the twentieth century that distinguished illicit from licit substances and created an environment where some substance s (e.g. alcohol) became socially acceptable while others such as cannabis became criminalised. While this books makes a welcome contribution to drug ethnographies its insider view of cannabis growers/social users (“by their nature […] generous and reciprocative” (p. 191)) offers a somewhat romanticised and partial perspective and for me raises many questions. Is Potter calling for the complete legalisation of cannabis or decriminalisation in the model of Portugal and The Netherlands and what impact would this have on the home grown market? How does he account for the apparent reduction in prevalence of cannabis use in recent years? Is small scale growing for one's own use an interlude in the lives of young people who will go onto lead professional lives or a career of choice?
Berridge, V. (1981, 1987,1999), Opium and the People: Opiate Us and Drug Control in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century England, Free Association Books, New York, NY.
Hough, M., Warburton, H., Few, B., May, T., Man, L.‐H., Witton, J. and Turnbull, P.J. (2003), A Growing Market: The Domestic Cultivation of Cannabis, Joseph Rowntree FoundationYork.
Melrose, M., Turner, P., Pitts, J. and Barrett, D. (2007), The Impact of Heavy Cannabis Use on Young People's Lives, Joseph Rowntree FoundationYork.