Meet Alex. He is 26, handsome, privately educated, and, for most of his week, a freelance director of documentaries. His wardrobe is immaculately shabby: designer jeans, cast-off T-shirts and vintage trainers. The kitchen of his boutique Victorian terraced house is decked with a vast, chrome Smeg refrigerator, a dining table for 12, and two sinks so deep you could bathe in them. He’s just had Velux windows put in, so the room catches the morning light. He also has big plans for the garden.
This life looks enviable, does it not? Now ask Alex how he achieved all this so young. Easy, he says: the money grew on trees.
Alex is, in his spare time, a cultivator of high-grade cannabis. For three or four hours a week he tends to the 40 or so marijuana plants that grow in his spare room under the glare of fierce lamps. Once every two months he crops those plants, bags them, makes a phone call, and waits for a man with a suitcase to arrive. Each harvest delivers around five kilograms of a strain of skunk known in the market as “Cheese” on account of its powerful aroma. A kilogram of Cheese is worth around £5,000, wholesale.
Alex is hoping for five, or possibly six harvests this year. His plants are occasionally prone to disease, and he has overheads to pay. Still, he hopes to clear an annual £100,000 profit. Naturally, it will be tax-free.
None of Alex’s neighbours on his quiet street in an affluent city in the southwest knows about his sideline. How would they? He appears to them as he does to me — a polite, successful young man with a burgeoning career. There is never any noise from the house, nor any smell. Alex does not smoke cannabis himself. His sideline is, in his words, “all about the profit”.
He is not alone. Meet Hannah, a well-spoken, 31-year-old primary-school teacher who works in the same city as Alex, with the kind of cute looks that — according to one of her friends — “make dads turn up to parent-teacher evenings”. When Hannah left university, she worked as a PR in London for several years before quitting to have a baby. After splitting up with the father of her child, she retrained as a primary-school teacher and moved out of the capital. Like many recent graduates, she has “significant” student debts. So, two years ago, she turned, as many of her friends had done before her, to a lucrative hobby. She began growing weed.
Hannah generates much less money through cannabis than Alex, but still makes enough to pay her rent and bills. If she were caught she would lose everything: her profession, her reputation, and, for the period of a likely two-year custodial sentence, her child. Why take the risk?
“I know, I know,” she says, giggling nervously. “It is a risk, and you’re always weighing it up in your mind. Is it worth it? But I earn £20,000 a year as a primary-school teacher. I’ve got a child to look after. I don’t get any help from my son’s father. I’ve got debts. The cost of living is so high. If I wasn’t making any extra money I’d be back living with my mum, as a lot of my friends are.
“It comes down to this: I want to do something with my life and this is a way of helping me reach my goals. Maybe, when I’m further along in my career, and I get paid better, I’ll stop. For now, it’s helping me achieve something, and that’s great.”
You will have noticed that this is not, at heart, a drugs story. It’s a money story. More and more young professional Britons are turning to cannabis cultivation as a profit-making venture. They are teachers, lawyers, designers, property developers and plumbers. They should be thriving in the legitimate success of their careers but, somehow, they are not. For some reason, they think they need a little extra on the side.
Where does the money go? One 27-year-old energy consultant I spoke to said growing cannabis was the only way he could afford a holiday. A plumber, who was laid off by his company six months ago, said he was using his bi-monthly output of skunk as a top-up to his jobseekers’ allowance and would quit the moment he found work again. One couple, who work as graphic designers (and whose lives will surely be examined when some future Andrew Marr comes to anecdotalise the early 21st century) have sold cannabis to pay for three courses of IVF treatment.
Over three months, I spoke to many of these part-time cultivators, on condition that I would not reveal their names or locations. None of them thought their extracurricular activities made them criminals. But every single one recognised the grave criminal consequences of being discovered: a prison sentence. They took the risk simply because it was — financially — worth it.
These middle-class amateur growers are not kingpins in Britain’s £5 billion drugs market. They are, however, a swelling sector of the cannabis trade. A recent study by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit found that some 60% of cannabis consumed in Britain is home-grown, compared to 10% in 1984.
The charity DrugScope believes organised gangs, often from Vietnam, produce about 75% of the home-grown cannabis on our streets. The rest is produced by the cottage industry: people like Hannah and Alex.
The deliciously named Dr Gary Potter — an expert in this field — has noticed a sharp rise in the number of domestic growers. “There is a huge demand for it. Ten, 15 years ago, most of the cannabis in the UK was imported — normally in resin form,” he says. “Now, that’s changed.”
Most of the cannabis consumed in Britain now is skunk — the leafy, powerful form of the drug — because most of it is now home-grown. Two factors are behind this “buy local” explosion. There are internet sites that lay out how to grow and dozens of shops that sell the equipment, including the complex hydroponic growing systems and high-wattage lamps, to get started. These shops are not illegal, because the products they sell could as easily be used to grow tomatoes as cannabis. “But when the guy in the shop asks someone how his tomatoes are getting on,” says Potter, “it’s with a nudge and a wink. Everyone knows what they’re talking about.”
This combination of factors has led to a revolution. “For criminal gangs, it becomes simple,” says Potter. “Why import, when you can set up an operation in Britain? Either you do big, risky imports… or you set up an operation that makes £1m a year from one house.”
For those with ambitions to grow on a smaller scale, the current climate is also fecund. “When you’re talking about middle-class growers, it becomes fascinating,” he says. “Five years ago, say, a lot of people got into it because they wanted to get away from the black market. They really were cultivating for personal use, and distributing among their friends. But recently people have realised that growing is not only really easy, but you can make a fortune doing it. The temptation to increase the scale of the operation is too great to resist.”
Ethically, this is a difficult area. Finding a consensus on the relative harm of cannabis is like trying to cross a motorway on a unicycle — one rarely reaches a conclusion intact. One grower viewed the argument in terms of the relative impact on society. “You ask the police who they’d rather deal with in a city centre on a Saturday night,” he said. “A hundred stoners or a hundred pissheads? The answer’s simple.”
Does he feels guilty about people who develop psychiatric illness as a result of cannabis misuse? “No, it’s the same as alcoholics,” he says. “Should we ban alcohol because some people get ill by using it? I don’t think cannabis is any more dangerous than wine. Whether other people abuse it or not isn’t really my business.”
Variations on this argument are being played out at the highest levels — most visibly during the recent furore surrounding the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the government’s chief drug adviser. To recap, Nutt publicly disagreed with Jacqui Smith when the former home secretary moved cannabis from a class-C drug to a class-B. And he was sacked by the current home secretary, Alan Johnson, after he claimed alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.
The one incontrovertible fact about cannabis is it remains, for the moment, illegal. For long-time devotees like Frank and Andrew, this is an absurd situation. “Don’t you think it’s a little unnatural to make nature against the law?” says Andrew.
Andrew is 33. He has dreadlocks and works as a park warden in a small northern city. His friend Frank is 42, wears an anorak, and runs his own IT business. They both grow cannabis and have the glazed, cheery look of men who have spent too much time indulging their particular poison. They are what Potter would call “social growers”. Frank, in particular, is a guru in the home-grown community. He calls himself a “self-appointed tester of new strains,” and has about 40 types of cannabis in his possession. Much of his spare time is spent contacting similar enthusiasts in other parts of the world and arranging to swap seeds. He shows me his Mexican, Egyptian, West Virginian and Lebanese strains. Impressive, I say — although all the seeds look roughly similar.
“Yes, but they smoke incredibly differently,” says Frank. “I’ve got a Mexican a lot of people don’t like, because it’s quite speedy and not remotely narcotic. I’ve got a Colombian which is quite cerebral. There’s Pakistani weed that is incredibly narcotic — you smoke it and you pass out. So there’s a whole range — it’s a delicate business.” He lights a joint.
Frank and Andrew have noticed a marked increase in the number of police raids on cannabis factories in the suburbs. The arrests have focused on commercial Vietnamese and Chinese gangs operating out of rented, gutted terraced houses. Now, most of the domestic growers that Andrew and Frank know have decided to lie low — cultivating a few plants at a time and making sure they only deal to friends.
For small-time growers like Andrew and Frank, however, profit is not the main concern. They simply wish to grow, and smoke, among friends. When the police’s tails are up, their biggest problem is concealing the energy consumption needed to keep high-watt lightbulbs glowing for 12 hours a day. “That said, I’ve got a neighbour who pays £600 a month for his electricity and nobody ever bothers him,” says Frank.
For committed growers, there are, naturally, ways and means to bypass the electricity problem. Either they keep their operation small enough that nobody would notice the spike in energy use, or they steal it. Many of the criminal gangs jack their electricity from neighbours using rudimentary and dangerous techniques. It can turn their houses into fire traps — and has led to a number of deaths. For the upmarket grower, like Alex, the solution is safer, but more expensive: he paid a dodgy electrician £200 to wire his house into the national grid.
The real money is made by those who set up new growers. In exchange for half the profits from a domestic operation, an “instructor” will lend you equipment, teach you the basics of cultivation and check on your crop. Some instructors have 20 “students” working for them — and they make a fortune.
Middle-class growers often make a big show about how their activities bypass the criminal underworld. The out-of-work plumber I spoke to said: “I don’t have a criminal record and have no intention of changing that.”
This desire to bypass the black market is why the current trend for home-growing flourished: cannabis smokers wanted to ensure that what they put between the rolling papers was not muck off a boat from Holland but was grown with love and attention by someone not unlike them. Despite this, the professional criminals intrude. Hannah tells me her biggest fear is not from the police, but from gangs who wait around outside grow shops and follow cultivators back to their house: “If you have the plants and the set-up in the house, you know there are criminal gangs who come and try to do you over, and steal your stuff. So I’ve had to be a little bit savvy.”
Growers can be as savvy as they like, but someone has to sell their product for them. And that someone is unlikely to have a respectable day job. On one surreal November afternoon, I sat in an Audi estate car with a middle-aged Indian drug dealer called Sly, who had gold teeth and an affable manner. He told me that the “white boys” who came to him with their crop to sell were only one section of the market, and a vulnerable one. “In this city, there’s many gangs — black gangs, Asian gangs, Chinese gangs — and everyone’s growing now,” he says. “They’ve realised they can make money from the home-grown, high-grade. All the kids… the only thing they want to smoke is high grade, things like Cheese and Kush [another powerful strain of skunk]. The smellier and stronger the better. If it knocks them out after one hit, they don’t care. A lot of white boys who are growing it have been robbed. Gangs come round and steal their crop.”
If you want to know why small-scale growing operations generate criminal interest, the answer is in the numbers. At the end of my interview, I receive a lesson in economics. The price of top-grade skunk has risen dramatically. A grower — Alex, for instance — can now sell a kilogram of Cheese for around £5,000 to Sly. Sly then breaks that kilogram down into four “bars” of nine ounces each. These retail at £1,500-£1,600 each, meaning the kilogram that Alex sold to Sly is now worth between £6,000-6,400. Those bars are passed on to local-level dealers, who sell them on, in ounces, half-ounces, or quarter-ounces, for £250 or more per ounce. The kilogram Alex sold wholesale for £5,000 finishes its market journey with a street value of nearly £10,000.
It’s tempting to see middle-class growers as they see themselves: squeaky-clean organic farmers in a supermarket world. But many have crossed the dividing line into serious crime. Over an orange juice at a fellow cultivator’s house I meet Michael, a successful, 36-year-old property developer who used to grow cannabis, but stopped two years ago. Why? “I was running for the local council,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t think it would reflect well on my party if I had a knock on the door from the police.”
I wonder what Michael’s party — he won’t tell me which — would have thought had his past come to light. He was brought up as the son of a headteacher in an affluent part of the West Country — “very conservative, very middle-class,” he says — but in his late teenage years became “immersed in the rave culture”. Soon enough, he dropped out of college and was financing himself entirely through dealing hard drugs, including crack and speed. It was only when he stopped that life to pursue a career as a developer that he began growing weed.
“To be honest with you,” he says, “compared to the money I’d been making, the income from growing wasn’t much. Maybe £50,000 a year, and I had to work hard for it. I used it to service my debts while I got on with being a developer.”
I’m not sure on what planet £50,000, tax-free, as a sideline, counts as “not much”. But as Alex told me, making so much money from an endlessly renewable source soon warps your perception of the world. He first began growing weed when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate.
“I was relatively skint then,” Alex says. “But a friend of mine and I started growing a few plants, and within three months we were getting £7,000 each every 8-10 weeks. Suddenly, I had no concept of the real value of money. I went out every weekend and spent at least £500 on a night out. I started buying expensive things. Before I knew it, I owed people two or three grand, despite making all this money — because I was always living beyond my means.”
Alex stopped growing at the end of his degree course and concentrated on his career. He only started his operation again this year to finance a particular project and buy equipment. “I’m doing this for the sake of my career. This could set me up, professionally, for a long time,” he says.
The question is: why should so many young, outwardly successful people risk their freedom for a little extra cash? I try to conjure compelling societal reasons. Is this trend occurring because of my generation’s collective loss of faith in the idea of a career for life? Is it because our belief in our parents’ credo that success at work will be translated into a desirable lifestyle has fractured? Or is it because our lives are already awash with drugs of every kind?
None of these explanations, on its own, will do. Instead, I keep returning to Dr Potter’s more straightforward diagnosis: people have realised they can make a fortune. It’s easy money, and when you see easy money, you take it. Therein lies the central irony of this phenomenon. For a generation in the 1960s, cannabis symbolised those heartfelt hippy clichés of free love, dropping out and sticking it to the man.
In the dying days of the last acquisitive decade, and the early days of this one, we have put aside such childish things and seen the drug for what it really is — a cash cow.