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Last Updated: Friday, 22 February 2008, 12:34 GMT
Homes turned into 'drug factories'
Plants seized in a police raid
More than 300 factories were found by West Midlands Police in 2007
Within the leafy suburbs and neighbourhood watch areas of the West Midlands lies a growing problem.

More than 300 cannabis factories were discovered in the area in the last year with 17 Vietnamese nationals arrested, a BBC Inside Out investigation has found.

Researchers discovered that gangs, mainly from south-east Asia, are choosing innocuous locations to turn rented properties into anonymous cannabis factories.

"You can have a row of identical houses in a row of identical streets, and one gets selected," said Harry Shapiro, from the charity Drugscope.

"You have well-dressed, respectable people going around to local estate agents and renting property. Nothing seems particularly out of the ordinary about that."

Unbeknown to landlords, cannabis growers strip the properties bare and knock through walls to install equipment including special lighting to aid the growth of the plants.

'Friendly faces'

Tenants usually pay their rent up to months in advance and then disappear, leaving houses in disrepair and landlords facing unpaid electricity bills of up to thousands of pounds.

Dorothy Wong
When people come to the UK they trust "friendly faces", says Ms Wong

Inside Out visited a four-bedroomed detached house on a main road on the outskirts of Coventry which had been used as cannabis factory.

From the outside it looked like a typical family house, but inside hundreds of cannabis plants were found growing underneath bright lights and electric heaters.

Curtains were shut and the young cannabis farmers had lived among their plants with only a TV for entertainment and a mattress to sleep on.

Neighbours said they had no idea such an operation had been happening on their street.

Drugscope believe gangsters are enticing young people from areas like Vietnam illegally to the UK with promises of big wages and a rich life.

'Become a prisoner'

Dorothy Wong, founder of Birmingham's Vietnamese Development Centre, said that when these young people arrive in the UK, they trust the "friendly faces" who may then lead them astray.

"Normally when you come to UK obviously you're scared, you can't understand what people are saying, it's frightening so you will tend to trust people who speak your language," she said.

"They will have friendly faces to get you into system, you become their prisoner in a sense.

"You wouldn't dare go to police. They will remind you that you're here illegally in the first place."

Ms Wong said that some of the young people are often told that they are growing tomato plants.

Notices in Vietnamese warn growers to be aware of the lose wiring
Notices in Vietnamese warn growers to be aware of the lose wiring

She added that although some of them eventually realise what the plants actually are, by that point the workers find they have little choice.

The National Landlords Association have urged people renting out their properties to check the homes on a regular basis to avoid this type of problem in the first place.

Landlords have also been told they should check all references from prospective tenants thoroughly.

Energy companies are also becoming victims of the criminals with thousands of pounds of electricity being stolen by houses being rewired directly into the street's mains to try and bypass the meter.

Electricity supplier E.ON said it was working with police to report anything usual it notices in its power supply.

So far, police have only apprehended the cannabis growers - not the gangmasters in charge of the whole operation.

"In our saying, they are little soldiers but not the generals," said Ms Wong.

"As you all know, you catch the one at the top if you want to win the battle."

Inside Out is on BBC1 in the West Midlands at 1930 GMT on Friday.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Many of the farms are in suburban streets



SEE ALSO
Landlords warned of 'drug farms'
27 Dec 07 |  Oxfordshire
Vietnamese cannabis gang jailed
19 Nov 07 |  England

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