Cannabis cultivation research and data

Cannabis cultivation research and data
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The International Cannabis Cultivation Questionnaire aims to develop a better understanding of patterns in small-scale cannabis production.

The Global Cannabis Cultivation Research Consortium (GCCRC) is a group of academic researchers from around the world dedicated to unearthing crucial information on the cultivation of cannabis on a small or domestic scale, by surveying cultivators and identifying patterns in key data.

MCN speaks with the Consortium about its work and the future of cannabis research.

What are the goals of the GCCRC?

Since the 1980s there has been a decline in cross-country supply of cannabis and an increase in domestic cannabis production within countries by outdoor and, latterly, indoor cultivation.

The Global Cannabis Cultivation Research Consortium (GCCRC) was formed in 2011 by a group of researchers interested in better understanding the relatively under-researched but increasingly significant phenomenon of domestic cannabis cultivation, especially by small-scale growers.

Prior to the founding of the GCCRC, research into cannabis cultivation in the developed world had largely consisted of nationally focused work generating typologies of cannabis growers, or national studies focusing on specific aspects of cultivation in individual countries. There was an absence of any significant internationally comparative research. Earlier studies on cannabis cultivation had also focused on large-scale, commercially oriented growers and police data, which may have led to false perceptions of the prevalence of different types of growers and related criminal behaviours, with important consequences for future policy choices.

Our transnational study aims to better understand who is involved in domestic, largely ‘small-scale’, cannabis cultivation; the diversity in cultivation methods and motivations; cultivators’ experiences with the criminal justice system and involvement in crime; their attitudes to different cannabis control policies; and how these factors differ across national borders.

Can you tell me about the GCCRC’s global survey of cannabis cultivators? What is the purpose of this survey and when do you expect the 2020 version to be complete?

In 2012, given the absence of any significant international comparative research the GCCRC developed the (semi-)standardised International Cannabis Cultivation Questionnaire (ICCQ), with 35 core items designed to facilitate international comparisons of small-scale cultivation (Barratt et al., 2012). We used digital research methods to facilitate dialogue with online groups of anonymous cannabis cultivators, access large numbers of cannabis cultivators from diverse locations and enable global collaboration with limited project funding.

In 2012-2013, the ICCQ was successfully run in 11 industrialised countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States), producing a usable dataset of 6,530 respondents. It was later also run in New Zealand and Israel. The work, which challenges stereotypes about people who grow cannabis, has generated more than 20 academic papers and – most importantly – has informed cannabis policy considerations in a number of countries.

However, the cannabis policy landscape has changed since our first survey, with a number of new legal and regulatory regimes introduced across the world. For example, cannabis has been legalised for recreational use in Canada, Uruguay, and in multiple states of the US, and recreational cannabis use and limited cannabis cultivation is now legal in one Australian territory. We therefore have many questions about how these new policy settings may be influencing domestic cannabis growers.

Against the backdrop of these new developments, the GCCRC has developed a second global survey of cannabis cultivators (the ICCQ 2.0), again targeting small-scale growers. However, the group of researchers has expanded since 2013 to now cover 18 countries (adding France, Italy, Portugal, Uruguay and Georgia). This survey been translated into 12 languages and is individually tailored for each country. It has already gone live for many countries, with remaining countries going live in the coming weeks; and is expected to run until March 2021.

Topics covered in the ICCQ 2.0 include:

  • The characteristics of people who grow cannabis;
  • How they grow and why;
  • Personal use of cannabis and other drugs;
  • Participation in the illicit drug market and other illegal activity; and
  • Impacts of COVID-19.

Special optional modules will also be run in different countries, including:

  • Conflicts and victimisation;
  • Growing for medical reasons;
  • Cannabis clubs and activism;
  • Opinions on alternative policies for growing cannabis; and
  • Cannabis cultivation in legal markets.

From this new survey we are again aiming to hear directly from cannabis growers about their motivations, practices and experiences of these laws and policies and other factors that affect them. The results will be used to provide realistic and up-to-date information about cannabis growing, in order to continue to inform consideration of policies, laws and regulations surrounding cannabis cultivation. Furthermore, by looking at such factors through an international comparative lens, we will be able to comment how different legal and other conditions impact on the people who grow cannabis.

Obviously, a cross-national endeavour such as this is a time-consuming and costly project. While most partners continuously try to obtain funding from local sources in order to set up the survey in their individual countries, much of the work has relied on the enthusiasm and voluntary efforts of the researchers themselves. The group also has a policy not to take funds from companies or others with a direct vested interest in the issue.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the progress of your research at all?

We had finalised our survey in March and were close to launching when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and restrictions to social movement started coming into place across the world. The GCCRC decided that it was important to edit our questionnaire to capture potential impacts of the pandemic and associated restrictions to social movement on cannabis cultivation. For example, with so many people being in lockdown in their homes for extended periods, how has this affected their cultivation practices? Has it allowed more time to tend to their plants? Has it restricted access to their plants? There is emerging evidence that restrictions associated with COVID-19 have affected drug markets generally, but how have closure of borders and social distancing affected cannabis cultivation? Were there changes in perceptions of legal risk? Ultimately, there were many issues we thought warranted investigation.

Being an international collaboration involving 18 countries and 12 languages made this process complex. Ultimately the pandemic has resulted in a six-month delay to the launch of the survey, but now we are underway so we’d love as many cannabis growers as possible to go to to complete the anonymous survey for us. We will be providing the results through various means, including via our website.

What were the key findings of the previous surveys in 2012 and 2013?

Firstly, we should start by saying that the findings from the first wave were published in 19 articles in high standard, international and peer reviewed journals, four book chapters and a special issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy. Our full list of publications can be found on our website here. The work has informed cannabis policy considerations in a number of countries and provided unique data on this under-researched phenomenon.

We found there was a great deal of similarity across countries in terms of the following:

  • Demographic characteristics;
  • Experiences with growing cannabis;
  • Methods and scale of growing operations;
  • Reasons for growing;
  • Use of cannabis and other drugs;
  • Participation in cannabis and other drug markets; and
  • Contacts with the criminal justice system.

In particular, it was evident that a clear majority of those small-scale cannabis cultivators who responded to our survey are primarily motivated for reasons other than making money from cannabis supply and have minimal involvement in drug dealing or other criminal activities.

The top five reported reasons for growing cannabis were, in order, ‘It provides me with cannabis for personal use’ (84%), ‘I get pleasure from growing cannabis’ (83%), ‘It’s cheaper than buying cannabis’ (75%), ‘To avoid contact with the illegal circuit (such as street dealers and criminal operations)’ (72%), ‘The cannabis I grow is healthier than the cannabis I buy’ (68%). Medical motives were also common, with the proportion who reported growing for personal medical use ranging from 19% in Belgium to 81% in the US. About a quarter (23%) reported selling some cannabis to cover their growing costs; and 13% reported growing to sell for profit. Of those who did report selling, 68% said they generated 0-10% of their total income from growing cannabis.

On average, participants in our sample were 20 years old when they grew their first crop (IQR 18-25); 15% had harvested one crop and 42% two to five crops. Half (49%) grew indoors, 20% outdoors and 31% both. The median number of mature plants per crop was five (IQR 3-9) and the space they typically used to grow was two square metres.

Overall, the sample of growers generally came from ‘normal’ rather than ‘deviant’ backgrounds. Some differences did exist between the samples drawn from different countries, suggesting that local factors (political, geographical, cultural, etc.) may have had some influence on how small-scale cultivators operated, although differences in recruitment strategies in different countries may also account for some differences observed.

What are some of the key challenges facing cannabis cultivators in Europe?

In most European countries growing cannabis is illegal and even in those countries that do allow some cultivation for personal use, strict limits with criminal penalties apply for those that breach them.

In some countries, growing cannabis is seen as a more serious offence than simple possession of cannabis. As such, even growers who have no intention of ‘dealing’ cannabis for money (which was the case for the vast majority of the respondents to our first survey) face fines, criminal records and potentially even imprisonment. This is ironic, given that many people grow cannabis to avoid participating in the black market and supporting drug dealers – in their attempt to avoid contact with ‘real’ criminals, many cannabis users commit more serious crimes themselves.

This risk of criminalisation, with the punishment and social stigma that can entail, is arguably even more problematic for those growing for medical purposes, caught between illness and pain on the one hand and the criminal justice system on the other. But this risk is mitigated where drug policies do allow or at least decriminalise possession and cultivation for personal use or medical purposes.

When engaging in illegal activities, cannabis growers face the further problems of being outside of legal protections. Many growers report becoming victims of theft, intimidation and violence from criminal gangs who know that growers may be unwilling or unable to go to the police. Again, some official toleration of small-scale cultivation offers growers some protections and undermines other types of crime. Some of the countries participating in the ICCQ are including an extra section focusing on these experiences of victimisation.

Global Cannabis Cultivation Research Consortium

This article is for issue 4 of Medical Cannabis Network. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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