Cannabis production (EU Drug Markets Report)

Cannabis production

Production processes

Key factors in the cultivation of cannabis, whether indoors or out, include exposure to light (natural or artificial), access to good-quality seeds or cuttings, the cultivation method used, plant density, water supply (irrigated or rain-fed crops) and soil acidity or alkalinity, which affects the availability of nutrients. Outdoor cannabis crops may be planted as a single crop or hidden within other crops such as maize, and yields depend upon natural daylight cycles and climate. Outdoor cultivation may be large or small scale and usually produces one or two harvests per year (Clarke, 1998; UNODC, 2006b; EMCDDA, 2012).

Indoor cultivation ranges from small-scale home growing to professional operations run by criminal networks in industrial warehouses. The control that can be exercised over growing conditions (e.g. light, heat, water, plant density, pest control, etc.) allows for continuous cultivation throughout the year and can result in four to six full harvests per year (Vanhove et al., 2012). The benefits of indoor cultivation include lower risk of detection and generally higher yields of higher-potency strains. Most indoor cultivation in Europe uses soil, rather than the once-popular hydroponic method.

Cannabis is harvested by cutting the plant at the base and then drying it in warm, low-humidity, low-light conditions, either by hanging or by placing it upon drying shelves, although nowadays special drying equipment is commercially available. To prepare herbal cannabis for smoking, once the plant is dry the flowers are ‘manicured’ (either manually or with a machine) to remove the leaves and stems, leaving the inflorescence (bud), which is the material usually sold on the market.

The production of cannabis resin, or hashish, entails dislodging the glandular trichomes that form mostly on flowers (buds). The result is a fine powder that is high in THC, which is then compressed to form hashish. Two main methods have been used in the main producing regions: hand-rubbing and sieving. Sieving is reported to produce much more resin much more rapidly than hand-rubbing, although in both cases several ‘grades’ of resin may be produced. However, even resins produced by the same methods can appear to be substantially different products (Clarke, 1998; UNODC, 2006b, 2010a).

As noted above, some cannabis resin (and cannabis oil) is also produced in Europe by extraction methods based on chilled water, or the use of electric tumbler/sieving machines. The resins and oils produced by these ‘modern’ methods using high-THC cannabis plants are likely to be quite potent (see below). 

Producing for European markets

The herbal cannabis and resin available on consumer markets in Europe come from a range of both domestic and external sources. Currently, systematic data on cannabis production sites or the origin of cannabis products seized in the EU are not available, but, despite this limitation, the overall situation can be described in general terms.

Cannabis resin

Historically, Europe has relied heavily upon production sources of cannabis resin outside the region, predominantly Morocco. However, Afghanistan may be re-emerging as a supplier of European resin markets (UNODC, 2013b). In both Morocco and Afghanistan, hashish is produced by the sieving method. Although recent qualitative information suggests that Afghan resin is rare in Europe, and mostly
of low quality (Chouvy, 2016), British authorities recently reported to Europol that approximately 50 % of the hashish entering the United Kingdom originates in Afghanistan. In this respect it is notable that 3 tonnes of cannabis resin shipped from Pakistan was intercepted in Belgium in 2013 (Belgium: Reitox, 2014).

Evidence has emerged of a change in cannabis resin production in Morocco that is likely to be having an impact on the European market. The kif plants traditionally grown in the Rif mountains are being replaced by cannabis hybrids of various origins that allow for much higher resin yields and THC contents (Chouvy and Afsahi, 2014). This has led to the emergence of a new, more potent, type of Moroccan hashish, which may in part explain why the potency of the cannabis resins seized in many European countries has increased in recent years.

Another potential, but as yet more speculative, explanation for the potency increase of seized resins is hashish production in Europe itself, from domestically grown cannabis plants. Indeed, there is already evidence suggesting that some cannabis resin is produced in Europe using the ‘modern’ methods described above. So far this seems to be restricted to individuals producing small amounts of home-made resin from their own plants and for their own use. However, there is a distinct possibility that large-scale, commercial, production of cannabis resin may develop in Europe in the coming years (Chouvy, 2016; Denmark: Reitox, 2016).

Grow shops

One potential indicator of the spread in domestic production in Europe, in particular indoor production, is the apparent rise in the number of ‘grow shops’. A grow shop is a shop selling products specifically — although not always explicitly, given legal considerations — for the cultivation of cannabis plants, and in 2009, 15 European countries reported the existence of such shops. Grow shops have increased in popularity since the 1990s in Europe. Some grow shops sell not only cultivation equipment but information, literature and smoking paraphernalia, suggesting that they can be regarded as ‘centres of learning’ about domestic cultivation. In a few countries (Belgium, France, the Netherlands) it has also been suggested that some grow shop operators sell seeds, buy their customers’ harvests and dispose of their waste products (EMCDDA, 2012).

The recognition of the involvement of criminal actors in the grow shop business has led some EU countries to counter the activity, notably by a crackdown or a specific legislative act. In the Czech Republic, following a Supreme Court ruling that grow shops were unlawful, 50 shops were raided in a police crackdown in November 2013, leading to seven arrests. In March 2015, the Dutch implemented an Article in the Opium Act of the Netherlands (Article 11a), which ‘prohibits the preparation or facilitation of professional cannabis cultivation or other criminal activities related to trafficking of large quantities of cannabis’. As a result of police enforcement activity linked to this Act, it is expected that Dutch grow shops will close and that facilitators of cannabis production, such as corrupt electricians and real estate agents, will be more effectively targeted and their assets seized. However, there remains the possibility of displacement to the virtual domain. 

Cannabis herb

In Europe, herbal cannabis tends be produced for sale on domestic markets and in neighbouring countries rather than for export outside the region. Although some cannabis herb is imported from outside the EU, it is probable that most of what is available on European markets is produced in Europe itself. A data collection tool on the number and scale of the cannabis cultivation sites dismantled by law enforcement in Europe has recently been developed by the EMCDDA and Europol. The implementation of such a data collection will systematise information on this topic, allowing a more reliable analysis of the situation.

Major herbal cannabis-producing countries in the Balkan region, including Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and, to some extent, Kosovo (14), supply the markets of central-eastern and south-eastern Europe. Albania appears to have been an important outdoor producer; however, this situation may have changed recently as a result of intensive eradication efforts in the summer of 2014. Cannabis plants were found growing on several hundred hectares in the southern municipality of Lazarat, in a mountain region near the Greek border, although commercial cannabis production probably also occurs elsewhere in Albania. Greece, where cannabis herb is also produced, is a major entry point into the EU for Albanian cannabis herb, which is distributed in several EU Member States, including Italy, Croatia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria. In addition, some Albanian herb may also be sold in western Europe, for instance in France and Germany. Furthermore, Europol indicates that low-potency cannabis herb produced in Albania is trafficked to the Netherlands and used to adulterate higher-potency cannabis, the mixture being destined for the UK market. Some Member States, such as Belgium and the United Kingdom, report that some cannabis herb is imported from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. Finally, the Ukraine has emerged as an apparently large producer of cannabis in recent years; however, as yet it has not been reported as a significant source of cannabis for European markets.

In Europe, cannabis production occurs indoors in most countries, with fewer countries reporting outdoor cultivation. Seizures of whole cannabis plants are generally thought to be an indicator of domestic cannabis cultivation in the country where they occur. The number of seizures of cannabis plants in the EU has been increasing for some time to over 30 000 seizures in 2014, compared with a little over 11 000 in 2006. Countries report the quantity seized either as an estimate of the number of plants seized or, in a few cases, by weight. The total number of plants seized in the EU remained stable at about 2.5 million annually in 2005–09, and then increased gradually to a peak of nearly 7 million in 2012 before falling to around 3.4 million in 2014 (15). The EU Member States that between them generally seize most of this total are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Figure 3.2

Professional cannabis cultivation

Underground cannabis plantation dismantled in Zeist, The Netherlands, in March 2013: cultivation area (left) and electrical set-up (right) 
Photo © Dutch National Police, Central Intelligence Division 

Historically, the Netherlands has been an important source of herbal cannabis supply within Europe, and thousands of cannabis production sites are dismantled by law enforcement there every year. Many of the innovations in growing techniques and equipment that have fostered the gradual professionalisation of cannabis production in Europe over the last 20 years, as well as many high- potency strains of cannabis, have been developed in the Netherlands. More recently, the internet has been identified as a key facilitator of the cultivation of cannabis, providing access to expertise and online shops selling growing equipment and seeds (Europol, 2015c).

Organised crime plays a major role in cannabis production in Europe. A significant development in this respect has occurred in recent years, a type of ‘delocalisation’ of production whereby some OCGs run cannabis plantations outside their place of origin and/or supply production equipment and know-how to other OCGs producing cannabis within EU borders for sale on EU consumer markets. Drivers for this include law enforcement actions against cannabis cultivation and social intolerance towards it, both of which are likely to be stronger in countries with a long history of cannabis production (e.g. the Netherlands). Other important factors include producing near the consumer markets in order to avoid smuggling drugs across borders, including internal EU borders, easier availability of premises in which to set up plantations, cheaper labour, lower law enforcement and social awareness of commercial cannabis cultivation. In this respect, Dutch and Vietnamese OCGs appear to play a significant role. For example, Dutch OCGs are increasingly active in other countries, setting up plantations, as illustrated by a recent case in France (see Case study 8). Dutch OCGs also provide ‘crime as a service’ expertise to other criminal groups in Europe, notably through ownership of grow shops (see box on page 58) but also, for example, through the use of corrupt real estate brokers who help select premises for the setting-up of plantations. Other criminal services available include electricians specialising in electricity theft, a crucial requirement for modern indoor plantations.

Environmental effects of cannabis production

The single-cropping of cannabis plants over large surface areas has negative environmental effects, such as erosion and underground water pollution and depletion, although these are often overlooked. As is the case with other drugs, environmental harm caused by cannabis production is poorly documented, although some information is available for Morocco (see box on page 61). 

Case study 8: Dutch OCG producing cannabis herb in France

An indoor plantation of 600 cannabis plants was dismantled by the gendarmerie on a farm belonging to a 52-year-old Dutch national in a remote rural area of central France in January 2015. According to the press, he offered his property as a cultivation site to criminal contacts in Rotterdam in order to alleviate financial problems. The plantation was set up by members of a Dutch OCG who travelled from the Netherlands and supplied all the equipment and cannabis cuttings. After the first harvest in 2014, the OCG had collected the cannabis herb from the farm and transported it first to the Netherlands and eventually to the United Kingdom, where it was sold.

The prosecutor stated that the cannabis plants were of a high-yield variety and that they could be harvested four times a year. The defendant said that he expected to make a profit of about EUR 7 000 from the harvest of the 600 plants although its total retail value was estimated at about EUR 145 000. He also told the court that there were many other operations like his in France, where cannabis herb is produced for export to the Netherlands. The court in Moulins sentenced him to 5 years in prison, a EUR 5 000 fine and the confiscation of his farm.

Source: Larcher, 2015. 

Cannabis production and the environment in Morocco

Cannabis is cultivated as a cash crop over an estimated 47 000 ha of land in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, a relatively densely populated region located close to Europe (UNODC, 2015a). Illicit crops have taken a heavy toll on the forests of the Rif. An estimated 17 000 ha of forests was lost in the Chefchaouen province alone during the 1980s, largely in order to make way for cannabis crops (Grovel, 1996). Deforestation makes the soil much more vulnerable to erosion, which leads to soil depletion. Soil depletion is particularly acute when the affected land is on slopes, as is the case in the Rif mountains. Depleted soil and the need to maximise yields often lead to the use of agricultural chemicals, in many cases with little regard to dosage, further polluting already degraded soils and spreading to rivers and underground water deposits (Chouvy, 2003; Afsahi, 2009). The large-scale cultivation of imported hybrid cannabis plants is likely to bring additional environmental harm to a region already seriously affected by the effects of large-scale cannabis cropping. Indeed, in addition to more soil depletion and pollution caused by the large quantities of agricultural chemicals required by the new plants, widespread cultivation of water-hungry cannabis hybrids risks further depleting the Rif’s water resources because of the frequent drilling of deep wells tapping underground water deposits (Afsahi and Chouvy, 2015). 

Short title: 
Production and precursors

(14) This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and the Internation- al Court of Justice opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence. 

(15) Data for the Netherlands for the years 2008–13 were obtained from the UNODC (2015a). Data for the UK were not available for 2014 so 2013 data have been used.