top of page

Risks of Exploitation in Cannabis Supply Chains

By: Kelly Beker, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Cannabis Education Guild


Today, the cannabis industry stands at a critical moment in time; as does the scourge of modern slavery. It is estimated that around 50 million people continue to live in modern slavery around the world. Although governments are making efforts to criminalise forced labour and other forms of exploitation, modern slavery is still on the increase, and remains rampant within commercial supply chains.

In many regions across the globe, massive demand for consumer goods is a major reason behind increasing levels of labour exploitation. The recruitment, harbouring, and exploitation of human beings is often unknowingly supported by businesses and consumers through the purchase of products and services that support unethical labour and trade practices. The lack of transparency in supply chains, and the global chain of custody are the primary reasons why this problem persists, followed by a lack of enforceable policy and legislation. Governments must criminalise all forms of modern slavery and forced labour regardless of the size of the perpetrating company, and make them punishable by law.


As an extremely versatile crop, cannabis is uniquely positioned to emerge as one of the most demanded commodities of the next decade. Operating in both illicit and legal markets, cannabis is now legal in over 50 of the 151 countries it is cultivated.

Unlocking the global cannabis supply chain comes with great risks of modern slavery. The expanding movement of cannabis legalisation will demand low-skilled labour from third party sources, making the cultivation of cannabis no different than the exploitative trade practices of other cash crops. Without the oversight to protect workers on cannabis plantations, modern slavery will continue to weave itself into the supply chain of this new burgeoning sector.

Historically, the results of multinational control of overseas supply chains have been devastating. The largest conglomerates in tobacco, coffee, seafood, cotton, electronics, and most recently personal protective equipment have been riddled with pricing wars for ingredients and materials that have often come at the cost of human lives.

As cannabis becomes a commodity, industry experts forecast a price collapse over the next five years. The cost per gram of the product will plunge, forcing businesses to cut costs to remain profitable, a trend witnessed nowadays in the North American market. The commoditisation of cannabis is forcing Western countries with harsher growing conditions, to rely on tropical and subtropical climates to produce cannabis biomass. Without the support of international governing bodies to prevent modern slavery, the rapidly emerging cannabis industry is at risk of ending up like every other commodity - a race to the bottom.

With modern slavery continuing unabated, the realities of global trade and business make it inevitable that countries cultivating cannabis will be exposed to the risks of labour exploitation, both domestically and internationally. Policy makers, businesses, and consumers must become aware of this risk of unethical and exploitative trade practices and take responsibility for it now.


Due to numerous supply-chain related scandals across multiple sectors, governments across the world have put in place initiatives to improve and facilitate an ethical approach to business. However, a huge gap remains between commercial practices and market regulations. A growing number of countries, including New Zealand, the UK and the US, have introduced new legislation holding businesses legally accountable for crimes related to modern slavery, and requiring public transparency about prevention tactics and remediation. Although progressive, these regulations do not incentivise companies to change their behaviour—to prevent, mitigate or rectify abuses they detect. Further, these Acts do not offer any help to the victims of exploitation, as they do not provide for any liability or remedy, in situations where companies make use of child or forced labour.

Governments around the world have an opportunity to create a cannabis industry free from all forms of modern slavery with new social policy, while also leveraging the sector’s infancy to make time-sensitive change, setting a precedent for supply chain transparency, spurring accountability, and chain of custody responsibility across all sectors.

To prevent further exploitation in cannabis and other supply chains, NGOs can play an important role in the monitoring of buyer and supplier relations, offering services to audit suppliers on behalf of corporations overseas. As NGOs are more connected at community level, corporations can partner with groups to better understand the local environment and risks present.

The cannabis industry is nascent and underdeveloped and has the potential to be the first sector to create a new way of working; one that seeks accountability and transparency, by bridging the gap between government policies and commercial practice.

To learn about the Cannabis Education Guild, and the first sector-based approach to eradicate modern slavery in global supply chains click here -

88 views0 comments


bottom of page