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Slavery on Britain's cannabis farms

Cannabis farms are being run in suburban houses by organised crime gangs, and staffed by illegally s

Children - particularly from Vietnam and China - are being trafficked to the UK to work as slaves in illegal cannabis farms.

These 'farms', run by organised crime gangs, are often situated in suburban houses. The children, generally aged between 14 and 16, are smuggled into the country before being locked in the houses to water cannabis plants. They have been found sleeping in cupboards or attics to make more space for plants, and are at constant risk of fire or electrocution due to illegal rewiring of electricity supplies.

Rather than being treated as victims, these children frequently suffer a second ordeal upon discovery by the authorities. A 2007 Home Office report on child trafficking describes how at least four Vietnamese children of the twenty two in the dataset were not identified as victims of trafficking and were arrested for cannabis cultivation.

“If a child is identified in a cannabis factory, then are are in a situation of harm, and are probably being controlled by adults,” says Christine Beddoe, director of the charity End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT). “Decision making on their treatment should flow from that. Instead, children are seen as criminals.”

An all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking last year established guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on child trafficking in order to avoid such miscarriages of justice. However, the evidence of numerous court cases since then show a reluctance to put this into action. Twelve trafficked Vietnamese immigrants were tried in a single case last year for conspiracy to produce cannabis, including a 14 year old girl. A 17 year old girl in a separate case will be deported as a foreign criminal at 18.

ECPAT frequently provide expert witnesses for court cases, securing the release of a child earlier this year after the CPS admitted that the conviction was not in the public interest. Such victories are a tough fight: this appeal alone took five months of legal wrangling by a specialist team. The cases continue, despite a landmark ruling in July 2007, when Judge Christopher Mitchell refused to sentence two young Vietnamese men, aged 16 and 20, saying that they were victims of “modern slavery” after reading about cannabis farms in a newspaper.

“There is a gap between the mechanism of protection provided by the CPS guidelines and the reality on the ground, where there is no clear policy or practice guidelines for police to follow,” says Beddoe. “The police and the CPS say that these children are not trafficked, not because there is proof that they are not, but because they haven't investigated the possibility.”

Although these children were identified as a risk group over a year ago, Home Office Minister Alan Campbell admits that “No central records are kept on juvenile offenders who may have been victims of trafficking. It is not therefore possible to give a reliable figure.”

Independent research and uncollated data suggests that the problem is on a huge scale. The charity DrugScope found that in London alone 1500 cannabis farms were raided from 2005 – 7, and that approximately two thirds of these were run by Vietnamese criminal gangs. When farms are raided, police arrest the only people there – the so-called 'gardeners', typically trafficked adults or children.

“Young people who have been trafficked and are found tending cannabis farms should be treated as victims, not criminals,” said Harry Shapiro, director of communications at DrugScope. “They work in cramped, dangerous conditions and should be given support and protection, not imprisonment.”

Tragically, these children can all too easily slip through the net, a lack of co-ordination meaning that they bypass government provisions for lone asylum-seeking children. Local authorities and children's services will deal with the child as a young offender, guilty of cannabis cultivation or of carrying false documents, despite the fact that the UN's Palermo Protocol states that a child cannot consent to his or her own exploitation. Being instantly criminalised means that they are not referred to specialist trafficking units and are left with virtually no ability to claim asylum or protection.

Independent charities and pressure groups, providing much needed research and support to victims and the authorities, are calling for the creation of a Human Traffic Rapporteur, to provide clear information and act as a watchdog for the implementation of laws. This is considered international good practice by the UN, and a successful model is in place in the Netherlands.

The deadline for ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings is approaching. It requires member states to regularly gather and analyse information on human trafficking, and includes measures for victims to claim asylum. However, no concrete policy plans have been made as to its implementation in the UK, and it was announced last week that the Met's specialised police unit will close in April.

The child victims of the cannabis trade may have a long wait before they gain automatic protection.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.