This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
The British weed industry has some unlikely new players taking charge of supply: green-fingered grandmothers.
A combination of easy money, the introduction of the bedroom tax (which gives less money to those living in government housing if there's a vacant room), and the fact that there's a very low chance they'll be locked up for their crimes has led to the rise of "groppers"—grannies with a crop, one of whom we met in the cannabis episode of our new UK drugs series High Society.
The story began when cannabis was downgraded to a class C drug in 2001 and the number of people growing weed in the UK sky-rocketed. It was reclassified to B in 2009, but that didn't make a huge amount of difference: People had realized how easy, lucrative, and relatively low risk planting a couple of crops could be.
Three years ago, in fact, the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit estimated there were 504,000 people growing crops in Britain, and between 2014 and 2015, a total of 54,711 plants were seized by West Midlands Police alone, earning the area the title of the UK's "cannabis capital." It was also in the Midlands that the concept of the "gropper" emerged: women above the age of 50 growing multiple cannabis crops because they're the last people, bar maybe children, the police would suspect.
Irish-born widow Margaret, who has three grandchildren and lives in the Midlands, first got into growing when her friend took the rap for her son's crop.
"Her son had a criminal record and would have been sent to jail if found guilty, so she went to the station and said it was her crop," said Margaret. "She barely got a slap on the wrist, her son paid her fine, and remained free—everyone was a winner."
She added: "When she told me how much could be made from a crop in my box room—£7,000 [about $8,500] every ten weeks. I've had a lot of changes in my life over the last few years; my children moved out, I had my benefits cut, and I didn't want to move because I like where I live, so gropping has been an answer to my prayers. I was only going to do the one crop, but it was so easy I do about three a year now."
As for the risk that comes with the production of a class B drug—up to 14 years in prison—she's nonplussed. "I haven't got a criminal record, so the chances of me being sent to jail for a first offense have to be really low," she said.
She's not wrong: Even if groppers are caught, the chance of them being imprisoned is low thanks to government measures aimed at reducing the number of female prisoners in the UK. In February, then prime minister David Cameron said the government would be looking into alternative punishments, such as tracking tags, for nonviolent female offenders.
Plus, a number of cash-strapped police forces have stopped prioritizing the policing of cannabis, with bosses in Derbyshire and Durham saying they'll no longer bother going after people growing small amounts of cannabis.
"In low-level cases, we say it is better to work with them and put them in a position where they can recover," said County Durham police and crime commissioner Ron Hogg in March. "It is unlikely that a case like that would be brought before a court."
CJ, who claims to have a multi-million pound cannabis operation stretching across three Midlands counties, has several groppers working for him.
"The last ten years have been trial and error with who and where to grow cannabis crops—we've tried big crops in factories, which are great until they're found, and then it's a big loss," he explained. "At the start, it was a cock-heavy industry, with most of the croppers being men who saw the opportunity to make regular money without the risks of selling class As—but they had the drug-dealer mentality, which meant constant problems. Groppers are perfect because they aren't going to rip us off and aren't going to blab about it down the pub, which is important because the police aren't our biggest problem—it's other dealers robbing crops that account for our biggest losses."
He added: "If you'd told me five years ago I'd have a load of grannies with crops on my books, I wouldn't have believed you, but the money is great for them. I've got all sorts who have come to gropping from different lives: women who have never worked in their lives and have been clobbered by benefit cuts and the bedroom tax, and women who have worked but thought they would retire when they hit 60, but have been stitched up by the government and face years more in work."
The bedroom tax is an important point in all this. Lots of women in their 50s living in council homes were stung by the introduction of the bedroom tax, left with spare rooms because—for instance—their adult children had moved out, and then told in 2013 that they would start losing housing benefits because they were under-occupying their homes.
So what do you do with an empty room to make up all that lost money? Fill it with weed plants and not only make enough to bring you level, but add thousands more on in the process. From the groppers I've met and heard about, it seems to be a common reason for older women to get involved in growing weed.
Elaine, who is in her 50s and the matriarch of a large family in the Black Country, has convinced several of her family and neighbors to start gropping.
"They have cut our benefits, are trying to make us work until we die, brought in the bedroom tax, and God knows what else to make women's lives harder," she said. "But gropping is a way of making a lot of women's lives easier, and if the granny of the family has more money, then it won't be blown on drink or gambling, like when men get money.
"Women know best."