(Top photo: two tagged plants)
In the UK, growing weed is usually a pretty clandestine procedure. It has to be, really, considering it's still very much illegal and can see you handed anything from a community service sentence to a decade in prison. Good news for green-fingered smokers, then, that the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC) have recently launched a system that, in theory, would help you battle a court case if your grow was busted.
There are four categories of cannabis grows in the eyes of the law. Category 1 is where your operation is capable of producing enough for commercial distribution, and the remaining categories work their way down to number four, meaning nine or less plants, which can be considered a "domestic operation".
The UKCSC sells a kit containing branded tags complete with unique serial numbers, and a poster bearing a notice for the police. You can use these to tag up to nine plants in one grow location, which signifies your operation is not one with criminal intentions. In other words, you are not a street or commercial dealer.
So why would you need to grow nine plants if you don't intend to deal? The idea is that this one garden provides for multiple cannabis consumers who are part of a "collective" – a "separate and legally distinct group of consenting adults that wish to avoid engaging with the black-market by the communal growing and sharing of cannabis", according to the UKCSC website.
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These collectives consist of many medical users of cannabis who are looking for the safest and fairest access possible, as well as recreational enthusiasts who don't want to associate with the criminal market and also wish to grow their preferred strains to a much cleaner standard than what's available on the street. As well as making it clear to the court that your grow was not funding organised crime, the money you paid for the tags goes into a pot maintained by UKCSC, which helps to fund your legal defence if you do ever get raided.
James, a grower who has been raided before, has recently registered his garden under the tagged collective model. He told me: "This scheme allows us to show that we are not commercial growers if we do get another knock at the door. And it shows the authorities that whilst cultivation is illegal at the moment, we are trying to do it in as professional a manner as possible and be responsible."
No one who is registered under the tagging system has actually been raided yet, so how the police and courts will view this model has not yet been tested. "I'd like to think the police would look at the tags and be able to clearly see that the plants are not intended for sale on the street and that they are for helping people to have a decent quality of life," says James.
Alongside the tagging system, domestic growers in certain parts of the country have something else their side: the fact that Sara Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs Council, has said cracking down on weed has "never been a top priority", and that if police are alerted to small-scale grows they're more likely to just "record" the news rather than carry out an investigation.
Another grower under the UKCSC scheme, Trev, has confidence in the project. He says: "Sooner or later we'll hit a tipping point where the police have to work far more effectively with us, rather than against us. The same will happen vice versa, which all goes towards community relations and cracking down on crime gangs. The tags show the police that I'm part of something bigger than myself. It shows them that I'm part of a culture that would far sooner work with them for change."
James also hopes the scheme will help to foster better relations with the police, as he'd like to be able to access his medicine without fear of arrest or prosecution. "I've had bad joint and muscle pain for about five years, and I've used cannabis concentrates to help with pain relief," he says. "After years of different tests I just found out this week that it's fibromyalgia. This is why I grow cannabis; even though I have been raided before, it is the only way I can guarantee consistent quality meds."
The tagged plant model also does more than just sending a message, it also allows the UKCSC to track data around how many potential medical users and growers exist in the UK. Greg de Hoedt, the President of the UKCSC, got the idea for this comprehensive anonymous database after seeing similar systems in US states where cannabis is legal, like California and Colorado.
"The inspiration initially came from an area in California called Mendocino," says Greg. "When the area was doing badly economically, the police force risked having major cuts. As the area was already known to be full of weed growers, they decided to drastically slow down on raiding weed farms – instead, they offered growers tags and flags for $8,000 (£6,550) that would make them immune from being a police target. The only condition was that there were no more than 99 plants being grown."
The money raised would be added directly to the community's tax budget, and therefore was a win-win situation for everyone – growers who signed up to the system were no longer anxious about being raided, and the community benefited economically.
"The sheriff who headed up the idea was praised for his innovation by most, and a bridge was built between cannabis growers and the police for the first time ever," says Greg. "I'd love to achieve this bridge in the UK."
In Colorado, cannabis is tracked by batch and by gram from seed to sale. This system of regulation was another source of inspiration for Greg, who sees such moves as an important part of cannabis coming out of the underground and becoming an accepted part of society. "This is about taking cannabis into our own hands and away from criminals," he says. "The tags are about knowing your cannabis has been grown properly, cleanly, and is of medical quality. The tags are about being ethical – knowing that acquiring your medication or your recreational drug doesn't fund the dealing of hard drugs, sex trafficking or other real crime."
Whether or not this tagging system will make a tangible difference to a potential court case is yet to be seen, but the message is clear: some people just want to grow the weed they smoke, and which affects only them, without being dealt with like gangsters by the authorities. Whether it's for medical or recreational purposes, Greg tells me he sees it as a human right for someone to be able to grow and supply their own medicine, having the freedom to choose what they do with their own bodies.
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