Human trafficking plays key part in cannabis production, says human rights expert

Number of cultivation and drug manufacture offences doubled last year during pandemic

Human trafficking plays an integral part in the domestic production of cannabis in Ireland, a human rights expert has revealed as a new exhibition highlights the issue at an arts festival in Cork.

Dr Fiona Donson, senior lecturer in the School of Law at UCC and Co-Director of the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, said the exploitation of trafficked people is central to the production of cannabis in Ireland.

“People trafficking can seem a distant problem. Yet far from being something that happens to people in distant lands, the exploitation of people through modern day slavery and bonded labour arises here in Ireland.

“It is an integral part of our economy: in the context of the products or services we want to buy at a bargain price and in the criminal domestic production of cannabis,” she said.


Dr Donson said the US Department of State last year downgraded Ireland from being fully compliant with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking to “not fully meeting the minimum standards” to eliminate trafficking.

“The report stated that “the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to [2019]” and was the second time in three years we had been downgraded,” said Dr Donson.

“Criticisms included the fact our government continued to have “systematic deficiencies in victim identification, referral, and assistance” as well as a “lack [of] specialised accommodation and adequate services for victims.

Dr Donson said the establishment of a specialised Garda Unit, the Human Trafficking Investigation and Co-ordination Unit was very welcome, noting that gardaí had earlier this month secured a successful conviction for trafficking.

“While the recent convictions are very welcome, the fact remains that despite the official identification of 471 trafficking victims since 2013 only two people have been held criminally responsible for trafficking,” said Dr Donson.

“As the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings stressed in 2017, the inability to successfully convict traffickers can deter victims from testifying and add to a culture of impunity.”

Dr Donson’s comments regarding the link between trafficking and cannabis growhouses takes on a greater significance as gardaí revealed that the number of cultivation and drug manufacture offences doubled last year during Covid.

According to Det Supt Sean Healy of the Southern Division, Garda records show that while there were 200 drug manufacture and cultivation offences in 2018 and 192 offences in 2019, there were 380 such offences in 2020.

“General criminal activity was heavily curtailed due to strict Covid restrictions and the fact that there were numerous Garda checkpoints during lockdowns,” said Det Supt Healy, who is based at Anglesea Street Garda Station in Cork.

“But there has been a commensurate increase in cannabis cultivation activity during the pandemic and a corresponding increase in Garda detection. This is despite the fact the pandemic should have limited Garda intelligence gathering.

“Since early 2020, several hundred cannabis growhouses have been uncovered by gardaí and a small number of these are being investigated in relation to human trafficking,” he added.

The issue of human trafficking and the link with cannabis cultivation has been highlighted by visual artist, Marie Brett in an immersive art installation, The Day Crossing Farm, which opens as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

Ms Brett revealed that the live installation, which is being staged at a secret location in Cork City this month, shines a light on “the issues of human trafficking, modern day slavery and drug farming in Ireland.”

And she paid tribute to Cork Midsummer Festival for commissioning the work which involved her spending two years working with human justice and advocacy organisations as well as people with lived experience of trafficking.

“Human trafficking is … a criminal underworld activity that is happening today right here in Ireland, with hundreds of trafficking victims, often living within local communities, hidden in plain sight.

“For the past two years, I have been researching compelling real-life stories of human trafficking, of drug farming and of how modern-day slavery is often linked to debt bondage.

“I’ve learnt so much and had the privilege of working with some of Ireland’s leading thinkers and creatives, as well as, importantly, people who’ve lived these profound experiences themselves.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times