The Uninvited Interlocutor

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The Semiotics Of Scratch ‘N Sniff: Crimestoppers UK And Their #WeedTheSigns Campaign

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Last week saw Crimestopers UK launch a new campaign with the intention of alerting the public to the smell and signs of cannabis grow houses in the neighbourhood. One of the features of the campaign is a scratch and sniff card that when activated supposedly gives off the smell of growing cannabis. Also on the card are other signs the public should be on the lookout for in order to identify cannabis grow houses:

Crimestoppers came under almost immediate criticism on social media for the campaign and it is fair to say the majority of reactions were mocking and/or damning. Under the barrage of criticism and questions, Crimestoppers asserted that they are an independent non-judgemental charity, which works to pass anonymous information from the public to the police, and that their campaign is designed to target organized crime and not individuals. When I pointed out to them that their campaign was clearly making judgements by choosing to elicit specific types of information from the public they responded by defining their notion of non-judgemntal (my emphasis):


We are apolitical; we do not comment on government policy, or the police and we do not judge our callers, or anybody in the criminal justice sector. We only do what we are good at: receiving information anonymously from members of the public to pass on to the police to solve crimes.

Clearly they are doing more than this with the #weedthesigns campaign. They do have a section where they outline core activities which includes, “Help to reduce crime by running projects and campaigns in communities most affected by crime.” And I presume they deem this campaign to fall under that rubric as they are distributing the cards in targeted areas where the police have identified grow house concentrations in their report on cannabis cultivation (.pdf): UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis 2012. I’ll come back to this document later, but suffice it to say that it is prepared by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and, “…is the third UK-wide assessment of the scale and nature of, and the response of law enforcement to, this problem since 2008.”

At the very least, I think Crimestoppers need to rework their notion of non-judgemental because they are clearly doing more than, “receiving information anonymously” when they run campaigns. They attempted to compartmentalize the two activities when I critiqued them on this point, but I find that attempt wholly unconvincing given that there is no public identification of various “arms” of the institution — there is simply Crimestoppers UK and its “core activites.”

Furthermore, when pressed on the source of funding for the campaign, Crimestoppers UK disclosed that it is paid for by their law enforcement partners. So, we have the police using a so called independent charity as the public face for a police funded campaign. Again, that seems to violate the notion of Crimestoppers UK as non-judgemental and apolitical. A cynic might conclude that the police used Crimestoppers UK as the “front” of this campaign in a manner similar to that of a human shield — that is, knowing the kind of ridicule and critique the campaign would engender they chose to run it through a seemingly independent charity so as to deflect the critique from themselves.

In the first piece I wrote for this blog, Why I Feel Sorry For Peter Hitchens, I argued that the enforcement of unjust/inconsistent/widely unheeded laws can lead to disrespect for the law as a whole (including those that enforce it). Crimestoppers UK, in associating themselves with the police on this issue as the the public face of this campaign, have now also felt some of that same disrespect through the feedback generated by social media. To be clear, I assume Crimestoppers UK motives to be of the best intentions and I have no issues with the general notion of a conduit through which the public can anonymously pass information to police, but they also seemingly accept whatever the police pass onto them as prima facie true and without much, or any, critical reflection.

It might be helpful to just take a step back for a moment and look at why the campaign received the type of reaction that it did:

  • There is a general and growing impatience with prohibition, particularly in relation to cannabis, in the mind of the public and with the failed “drug war” tactics that have been employed over the last 40 years — and the public see this campaign as the continuation of that policy and tactics.
  • In distributing a scratch and sniff card with the aroma of growing cannabis the campaign does not distinguish between small personal grows and the intended target of organized crime’s grows. Cannabis smells the same whether grown by organized crime or a person growing it to alleviate health problems.
  • Commercial grows employ methods to eliminate the odours of growing cannabis through carbon filtration of the exhausted air. Again, leaving the small personal grower in the campaign’s sights.
  • There is a large demand for cannabis in the public and seeking to disrupt the supply is not popular with those who wish to consume it.
  • There is a large variety of people involved with production and use of cannabis and the campaign is too broad stroked, so it ends up painting all those involved as “bad people” or associates of organized crime.
  • The smell of growing cannabis is not that dissimilar to that of it being consumed (particularly by vaporization) and those unfamiliar with the smell are likely to confuse it with the smell of simple consumption — putting the consumer in the sights of the campaign.
  • The campaign’s imagery includes hand guns seemingly growing out of flower pots alongside cannabis — setting up an association of the smell and signs on the card to that of violence, firearms and danger (more on this later).
  • The campaign is likely to force more consumers into the hands of the black market and organized crime by scaring them away from growing their own supply — resulting in increased demand for the output of organized criminal enterprises.

So, a campaign that purports to target organized crime and the apparent concomitant harms that it can bring into neighbourhoods (firearms, violence, human trafficking, etc.) comes across as ill focused and likely to target those it says it wishes to exclude. Furthermore, it swims upstream against the growing tide of public sentiment on the issue and paints all those associated with cannabis in a negative light. How did Crimestoppers UK end up running such an ill defined campaign? The answer seems to be the information the police provided to them and their uncritical acceptance of it as true, correct and substantiated.

Let me just be clear here and establish that there is no doubt that organized crime is involved in cannabis production — it would be foolish to think otherwise — prohibition attracts organized crime like picnics attract ants. And there is no doubt that organized crime can bring with it violence and firearms — to what degree and the overall percentage of those involved so equipped will depend on the types of “organization,” the level of risk and reward as well as many other factors, I’m sure. However, when talking about such matters it’s of utmost importance that there is hard data available to base assertions, decisions and campaigns upon — and this seems to be where things fell down for the #weedthesigns campaign.

In a statement (.pdf) produced by Crimestoppers UK after the critique they received on social media they state:

The imagery used on the cards and posters for this campaign show a gun growing from a cannabis plant. This reflects the fact that cannabis farms grow and fund serious organised crime including violent, gang-related crime and firearms. This is the key objective of our campaign and this has been emphasized throughout all our communications.

The attempt to frame the imagery simply as a depiction of how cannabis farms can fund organized crime seems a lot like an afterthought to justify it in light of the criticism — for instance, if the funding of organized crime is the core message why not show money growing from the pots and being picked by a gangster? I very much doubt that the average viewer of the imagery will think about it as described in the above quotation — the blunt takeaway message is that cannabis farms = guns. If one puts out imagery where guns are associated to the smell and sight of cannabis growing, then it is one’s responsibility to have the relevant statistics to back up such a vivid representation. The impression that will stick in the minds of the public is that the odour from the card is cannabis being grown and where cannabis is being grown firearms are present. This imagery associated to the odour is not intended to be subtle or nuanced — there is only one thing this will engender in the minds of the public — fear. And the hope is that this fear will lead to an increase in reports of cannabis farms:


One would assume that if you put out such imagery and also link it to the smell of cannabis, then you have the statistics ready to hand on the number of firearms recovered/encountered per cannabis growing operation. It would be a basic piece of due diligence to perform before you print up material and distribute it to the public, no? Well, it seems that the answer to that question is, indeed, a “no.” I have asked Crimestoppers UK several times to provide that data and the best they have done is to point out that some of their information for the campaign has come from the UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis 2012 (.pdf) document produced by ACPO that I mentioned earlier.

So, I’ll now turn to that document. It’s a reasonably detailed document covering commercial cannabis cultivation attempting to set out definitions of commercial cultivation, trends in production methodology and threats from organized crime groups (OCGs). In the foreword it talks about:

“…the continued threat from OCGs involved in the commercial cultivation of cannabis and related criminality such as burglary, human trafficking, kidnap, violence and the use of firearms.”

And the very next section (page, in fact) of the executive summary it continues:

The threat from the domestic commercial cultivation of cannabis in the UK is increasing. There has been an increase in robberies, burglaries and violence (including the use of firearms) linked to cannabis farms.

So, I think it’s quite easy to see where Crimestoppers UK arrived at the notion to use the imagery of guns growing next to cannabis in their campaign. Here we have two mentions of firearms, increases in violence and other types of crime all within the space of the first two pages of the document. Fair enough, this is a fairly robust document in terms of statistics, charts and graphs showing us the number of cannabis farms discovered over various timescales, the number of plants recovered, the number of farms per 100,000 population in the different regions of the UK, etc. Given all this information and that firearms were mentioned twice in the first two pages of the document, it should be a simple matter to include along with the total number of farms the number of farms where firearms were recovered or total number of firearms recovered overall from all farms. However, apart from those two prominent mentions at the beginning of the document firearms are curiously missing from mention in the rest of the document.

I find this odd since the quote above (and repeated in Crimestoppers UK campaign material) clearly makes the assertion that there is an increase in firearm usage linked to cannabis farms — in order to determine an increase there must be baseline statistics and current statistics from which to chart the change. There is no quantitative information given at all to say how large the increase is and what it has changed from. Even then, just to say “there is a 100% increase” is relatively meaningless without hard numbers because 1 firearm incident per 10,000 farms then increasing to 2 firearm incidents per 10,000 farms, for example, is a 100% increase but hardly significant. However, we are not even given such a loose percentage increase statistic — we are given no statistics whatsoever. Keep in mind, those quotes above are from the foreword and the executive summary — the second under the rubric of “Key Inference.” To give such prominent placement to these assertions and not back them with hard, verifiable statistics seems bizarre, to say the least.

I made two requests to the Hackney Metropolitan Police Service, when they entered the #weedthesigns discussion on Twitter, for the statistics on the number of firearms recovered/encountered per cannabis grow operation, but have been met with silence. These numbers must exist — I can’t imagine the police not documenting encountering/recovering firearms and the circumstances (at a cannabis farm) under which the incidents took place. We know the number of commercial cannabis farms is known from the ACPO report, so it’s simply a matter of producing the statistics on firearms encountered/recovered and doing some quick mathematics to arrive at a ratio of firearms per cannabis grow operation. That number would then give us a hard statistic on the prevalence of firearms associated with cannabis farms on which we could asses overall risk of firearm exposure to the communities where grow operations are located.

Until such time that the statistics are forthcoming the whole #weedthesigns campaign can only be seen as fear mongering — instilling fear in the public for purposes of engendering an increase in reports of possible cannabis farms. These are the tactics of an increasingly outmoded “drug war” era and the public have less and less tolerance for them as time goes by. People do need to be informed of risks, but that information needs to be based on evidence, statistics and sound reasoning — not vague assertions and frightening imagery.

Even if hard data emerges showing a substantial risk in communities from a significant increase in the prevalence of firearms associated with cannabis farms, the #weedthesigns campaign still needs a fair bit of work to clarify its message:

    • It equivocates between an effect of cannabis and a harm created by prohibition:

Cannabis isn’t the harmless drug people often think it is. Organised crime gangs that grow it can bring crime, violence and intimidation into a neighbourhood.

    • And it borders on contradiction with the previous point when it goes on to say:

Gangs don’t want to draw attention to the houses or flats they use as farms. They’re often quiet and unassuming.

So, cannabis farms are “often quiet and unassuming” and they also “bring crime, violence and intimidation into a neighbourhood.” Which is it? To be fair, the quote does say “can bring crime, violence and intimidation…” — but that’s exactly the point that needs hard statistical evidence to back it up — what’s the probability ? It seems to suggest it’s low if we are to take the “often quiet and unassuming” point seriously. The message just isn’t clear — and that’s because the campaign, as a whole, uses an appeal to fear as its driving force. As long as you’re frightened enough of the possible implications (guns, violence, intimidation, etc.) you won’t spend time looking at the details — you’ll just accept the assertions and comply by reporting every instance where you smell something similar to the aroma on the card.

I had what looked to be, at one point, a promising exchange with the Hackney Metropolitan Police in relation to their Operation Hawk and the numbers of firearms recovered on site at cannabis farms during the operation. They (and other services running the operation) had been tweeting running statistics over the two days of the operation on the number of searches, arrests, cannabis farms uncovered, etc., so it seemed reasonable to get the stats on the number of firearms recovered from the cannabis farms. At one point they tweeted the total number of farms uncovered was twelve, so I asked for the statistics on the number firearms recovered from those farms — they chose to use that request to highlight the firearm recoveries, from the operation as a whole, to all of their followers by beginning their response tweet with “Hi” and then my twitter handle. This is a little bit underhand in that no context is supplied (my request for the data specifically about farms) as well as a bit opportunistic — they could have easily provided the information to their followers in a stand alone tweet without turning our exchange into a platform to simply promote their operation’s results. Not a big deal, I suppose — more of an etiquette thing, but still somewhat transparent. The important thing was that I had an offer to supply the actual statistics I am interested in after I clarified I was after the numbers on the firearms recovered from the farms.

Well, a day went by and the operation had concluded, but no reply was forthcoming after the offer to get the numbers for me. So, I prompted them with another tweet reminding them I was still waiting and requested the number for the total of thirty-four farms the now complete operation had uncovered. I was told they were very busy operationally and they would respond when they could. Three days of silence went by, so I did my own research looking through the #OpHawk tweets and the write ups of the various searches and found that every mention of a firearm recovery had not been at a cannabis farm. That is, they were from dealer locations where class A drugs were found or in other circumstances. So, I sent another tweet telling them what I had done and that the number appeared to be zero and to correct me if I was wrong. I also mentioned they might see zero firearms as good news and to say publically that no firearms were found at the thirty-four cannabis farms might be okay. Their response was to point me to their page on Freedom Of Information requests if I required any additional information. In short, they aren’t going to fulfill their two offers to provide the information short of a Freedom Of Information request. I ended by pointing out that they were very freely disseminating information when it suited their purposes, but now that there appears to have been zero firearms located at thirty-four cannabis farms — which runs counter to their desired narrative and the #weedthesigns campaign — they have decided to clam up and require a FOI request for any further disclosure on the subject.

It’s a shame. Instead of spreading fear the police and Crimestoppers should be disseminating actual factual information. That there appears to have been no firearms recovered from thirty-four cannabis farms is good news — it can only not been seen as good news if there is some agenda or narrative to protect and this fact runs counter to that purpose.

UPDATE  (June 2014):

They’re back!  Guess they figured if they laid low for a year the laughter and mocking will have died down and they can finally get rid of the huge stack of unused scratch ‘n sniff cards.  Can ya #weedthesigns again?  Well, can ya?



Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

March 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm

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