There is no other crop like cannabis. Food, fibre, medicine, and an innovative starting point for solutions of sustainability: cannabis is uniquely positioned to become one of the most highly-demanded commodities in the coming years. As more countries than ever before are looking to legalize cannabis, cascades of investment from apparel, food, alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals show how the cannabis plant is making its way into every-day consumer goods. While these industries are advancing a cannabis boom into mainstream commerce, they are also bringing with them a backdrop of risk and murky globalized supply chains. And so, one must question: is cannabis ripe for exploitation? Shifting from what was once a “War on Drugs,” to a game of global trade, the unravelling of global cannabis supply chains comes with a time-sensitive opportunity to right the wrongs of business that put profit over people.

Cannabis Education Guild (the CEG), a platform focused on global cannabis education and social good, is igniting a call against labour exploitation in cannabis. By addressing the human rights risks, often the elephant in the room, the industry can work to avoid future injustices; costly not only because they are socially regressive, but also because they are business risks.

Through the “Ripe for Exploitation” series, the CEG shed a spotlight on the horrific injustices of labour exploitation that food production, apparel manufacturing, and the pharmaceutical industry continue to perpetuate. The series has also highlighted why these examples should act as fuel for the development of transparent cannabis supply chain policies. To expand on this, the CEG will explore the human rights risks already being faced in illegal cannabis markets, and why responsible transitions from illicit markets to regulated industries will be necessary in the presence of increasing investment from other sectors. Why Cannabis, Why Now? We must recognize the disturbing truth that cases of modern slavery have already surfaced in the legal cannabis industry and the take urgency in collective action against human exploitation, before it is too late.

The CEG is setting the stage for an industry-wide conversation about the ways cannabis, as a new commodity sector, may set a precedent for transparent supply chains, and responsible business at large.

With cannabis legalization comes the hidden risk of unethical and exploitative behaviour trickling into legal commercial supply-chains, as illicit players rush to comply with regulations and remain profitable under new legislative systems. Hence, it is important in the conversation of developing responsible business policy for cannabis supply chains to consider the lessons of modern slavery that come from the very business of established cannabis markets around the world.

As discussed in the first article of this series, the comparison of cannabis to other agricultural commodities that have heightened risks in their supply chains, makes it clear that the cultivation of cannabis creates similar conditions ripe for the exploitation of workers. Specifically, this is important to consider as cannabis is made legal in markets that have a significant amount of existing illicit-market activity, often the result of barriers in policy development and formal legislation around cannabis. Take the UK for example, it is the world’s largest producer of medical cannabis, yet it lacks robust systems to govern the cultivation and distribution of cannabis, which ultimately hinder access to the plant for patients and adult-users alike. (1) Without the adequate legal systems to do so, the UK relies strongly upon an unregulated market and its unscrupulous business activity to fill the demand for cannabis. Business activity of this kind not only puts end consumers at risk, it also places even more risk on the vulnerable labourers along the supply chain, whose unjust exploitation is hidden in plain sight and ignored as a result of the illegal nature of cannabis business. Take, for example, the doubling number of human victims trafficked from Vietnam for work in the i UK’s illicit cannabis market over the past five years, according to The Salvation Army. (2) Even more horrifyingly, this number of victims has increased by an alarming 95% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (3) This means that stories like that of Minh, the 16-year old boy from Vietnam who was kidnapped, sexually-abused and then trafficked to the UK where he was forced to grow cannabis, are not unique. (4) In fact, Minh was just one of the hundreds of Vietnamese children whose rights and livelihood are stripped every year as they are trafficked to work in the UK’s £2.6 billion illegal cannabis market. The dark reality today is that the majority of these victims are still hidden in plain sight, and that systems adequate enough for their identification and protection do not exist.

Many of the victims of modern slavery found in cannabis supply chains, in regions such as the UK, are subject to forces such as “debt bondage,” which make workers financially obligated to their employers, often leaving them locked into systems of modern slavery, especially without the presence of collective rights or bargaining for workers.(5) These risks should be at the top of mind as countries such as the UK transition from illicit to legal markets.

Beyond domestic borders, there are human rights risks to consider as legal cannabis markets begin importing products that have been legally cultivated in other regions. As production is outsourced, line of sight down the supply chain will decrease, and so will the identification of human rights risks that may have bled into legal markets from illicit practices. To illustrate these risks, it is useful to consider the illicit cannabis market “hubs” around the world and how they may present heightened risk for labour exploitation if and when legal cannabis supply chains reach them. For example, cannabis laws have recently been revised in Mexico, giving rise to a newly legal adult-use market for the country.(6) However, drug cartels characterized by high levels of fraud, violence, and trafficking currently dominate the trade of illicit cannabis in Mexico.(7) While it is hopeful that legalization will be a step in ending the “War on Drugs” that helped strengthen the business of cartels in the first place, it is also important to recognize that in any country, but specifically a country whose legislation can be easily affected by crime and corruption, that a regulated market will not be entirely built out overnight. In Canada, over two years have passed since robust legislative systems were established for the commercialization of legal adult-use cannabis, and yet, an illicit market for the drug continues to thrive, still representing an estimated forty-percent of the total industry in 2020. (8) The risk herein lies that the illicit market for cannabis in Mexico, and the accompanying risks of human exploitation, may continue to flourish even as legal operators open for business. Of even more concern should be the fact that these risks may remain invisible to importing businesses and countries.

The story is similar for the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle, the most significant drug producing regions of the Asian continent that are known for increasingly large amounts of drug trafficking. As countries around the world, and namely proximal countries like India, begin to legalize cannabis, it will become more and more important to consider how legal cannabis trade may be tainted by the illegal practices of drug trafficking hubs like these. (9) As well, it will become increasingly important for partnering governments and businesses to work together in designing human rights policies that are specific to the cannabis industry as well as specific to each region its supply chains involve.

Whether it be cultivated for its drug varieties, food, medicine, fibre, or other industrial applications, cannabis is becoming a commodity that will ultimately make its way into an endless array of consumer packaged goods (CPGs). With this, it is likely that the cannabis industry will see a great degree of segmentation as different players carve out unique capabilities along the value chain from seed to sale, whether it be in cultivation, extraction, value-added processing, branding, marketing, or anywhere in between. Along with segmentation already taking place, the economic potential seen in North America’s growing legal commercial markets has led to an influx of investment dollars from the world’s largest CPG companies.

In fact, over $400 million has been invested in cannabis in the United States by chewing gum and candy company, Wrigley. (10) Prominent alcohol beverage company, Constellation Brands, has placed over $4 billion in a publicly-traded Canadian cannabis company. Meanwhile, Tobacco giant Altria put $1.8 billion in a leading industry producer. (11) Big Pharma company, Novartis has placed its bets on the industry as well, opening the door for increasing medical cannabis supply from big drug manufacturers. (12) Above all this, chocolate and food giant Nestle plans to launch cannabis soft gels in the UK. (13)

As these investments increase in volume and frequency, it is necessary to consider the implications for cannabis supply chains that may come as a result. More specifically, one must consider how the human rights risks faced in those very sectors may be replicated through cannabis. Time and time again, these sectors have been called upon to take action against things such as modern slavery in their supply chains, whether it be lawsuits for child labour in cocoa supply chains, (14) or forced labour in the materials sourcing for pharmaceuticals. (15) If there was ever a time to change, it is through a new industry. The question then becomes: how can we ensure that legal cannabis policy is designed to protect consumers, workers, and the planet throughout the process of legalization and commercialization?

Cannabis is a rapidly growing global sector with the chance to learn from mistakes of the past. As such, responsibility lies in the hands of its business leaders and supporting policy makers to define sustainability for the industry through transparent and resilient supply chains that meet the expectations of today’s socially conscious consumers.

Besides the risks of bad practices from illicit markets being replicated, broader considerations of exploitation in supply chains must be examined. For example, given that the cultivation of cannabis has similar labour conditions to that of other commodities in the agricultural sector, the new industry has been led to rely on similar labour markets as agriculture: migrant worker populations. This was evident in the early years of legalization in Canada, when licensed cannabis producers began following similar practices as food in hiring temporary foreign workers, not surprising given that many of Canada’s cannabis producing regions are also food producing regions. (16) While it is not to say at all that there are not some mutual benefits to migrant worker programs, if not carefully protected, they may introduce an additional layer of human rights risks to supply chains.

Migrant workers often lack means of collective bargaining or worker protection. As well, they often are subject to very strict working contracts that tie their labour to the legal right to be in that particular country. Contracts of this kind oftentimes lead vulnerable workers to take on unfavourable amounts of debt as a means of paying off the extortionate recruiting fees needed to make it overseas. These factors create an environment where migrant workers may have been trafficked to work, may be forced to work as a result of debt-bondage and are likely not afforded the voice they deserve to speak up against unsafe or unfair conditions. In Canada, some of these instabilities are hidden behind our favourite fruits and vegetables, where vulnerable migrant workers lack the basic labour protections afforded to other workers in their province. An example found in Ontario’s food industry proves that migrant workers have been found to lack entitlement to rest periods, time off, breaks, or overtime pay, all while being 10 times more likely to contract COVID-19 as a result of poor worker conditions. (17) Unfortunately, these instabilities have already found their way into cannabis supply chains, with at least three reported cases of poor working conditions for temporary foreign workers at licensed North American operators found in the past year.

No other sector has used the opportunity that cannabis has to right the wrongs of human exploitation in business, from the onset of commercial development. While other industries, like cocoa and fast-fashion, scramble to clean up labour exploitation in their supply chains, cannabis can take the right approach from day-one through a sector-specific policy that supersedes jurisdiction and governs an entire industry. The CEG believes that a sector-based approach could influence the development of a formal industry “Chain of Custody System,” founded on the belief that unique responsibilities exist along the supply chain, from raw material to end goods, and that a framework for the identification and management of these responsibilities is critical in creating sustainable and transparent supply chains.

So, “Why Cannabis, Why Now?” The short answer: the time to reframe “business as usual” is now. Cannabis, as a commodity and sector to the economy, can be the vehicle for this change. Starting the conversation now, the CEG is prepared to activate the cannabis industry in a collective effort against modern slavery and more responsible supply chains. But we must act quick, before mistakes of the past are replicated.

Mac Abbott,
Cannabis Education Guild
As a platform focused on global cannabis education and social good, the CEG aims to educate professionals in legal and emerging cannabis markets, while investing in meaningful social impact to create a healthy and ethical cannabis industry. Learn more at

14. Balch, O. (2021, February 19). Mars, Nestlé and Hershey to face child slavery lawsuit in US. The Guardian.