Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 12:01 UK

New cannabis chief tackles farms

Policewoman in cannabis factory
Factory at home: Police typically find hundreds of plants in each raid

A national cannabis co-ordinator has been appointed to tackle the growing problem of drug farms in homes.

The Home Office said former senior police officer Mark Matthews was assessing how many cannabis farms could be operating in England and Wales.

Last year police discovered some 3,000 operations in ordinary houses.

Police chiefs say they can link the industrial nature of the trade to international gangs involved with counterfeiting and people smuggling.

Mr Matthews, a former Merseyside chief superintendent has spent his first weeks in the job trying to establish, for the benefit of ministers and police chiefs, how big the problem of cannabis farms has become.

Of the 3,000 farms discovered in the year to March 2008, almost all of them were in ordinary, anonymous homes.

It's a big shame that the organised gangs are taking over - they don't believe in cannabis - to them it's just a way to make money

Cannabis farmer 'Jimmy'

In many cases the farms were discovered only because of suspicious signs of plant cultivation and excessive electricity use, sometimes leading to fires.

Other tell-tale signs include blacked-out windows, mysterious vents or noises from fans and visits to the unoccupied property at random times.

Mr Matthews said tackling the use and trade of cannabis was a particular issue for the police to focus on.

"The harm to neighbourhoods that is increasingly associated with illegal cultivation and trade in cannabis provides a challenge for law enforcement within the United Kingdom.

"The police service is responding to that challenge, with more raids on cannabis farms than we have seen previously and a tougher approach to policing cannabis on the street.

"We now want to step up action against the organised crime networks that are involved in the cannabis trade."

Education campaign

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker said Mr Matthews's appointment "shows that we are not complacent against the scourge of any illegal drug".

He added: "I want those criminal gangs who are involved in supplying illegal drugs to experience the fact that the UK is a hostile place in which to do business.

"We will bring them to justice and seize their ill-gotten gains.

"Whilst cannabis use has fallen in recent years, we know that the market share of skunk has grown.

"We will continue to bear down on drug dealers through tough enforcement, while providing education through information campaigns such as the Frank website in order to warn our young people about the dangers of illegal drugs."

Mr Coaker told MPs earlier this year that domestic cannabis farms had become "a major worry".

While some farms are amateur operations run by friends, many more are now part of international organised crime with links to South East Asia.

Looking for clues

Officials have met electricity companies to try to work out if farms can be found more quickly, based on the electricity use being recorded by meters.

Police are also using thermal imaging cameras to detect signs of the heat needed to cultivate thousands of plants inside an ordinary home.

The Home Office announced Mr Matthews's appointment on the same day that an official advisory body to the government began considering calls for ecstasy to be downgraded from a Class A drug.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which takes expert scientific and medical evidence on their effects, is preparing a report for ministers on the future of the club drug used by 250,000 people a month in England and Wales.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced earlier this year that cannabis would be reclassified as a Class B drug, meaning tougher penalties, despite the ACMD saying it should remain Class C.


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