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Page last updated at 08:50 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009
Inside Britain's cannabis farms

By Jim Reed
Newsbeat reporter

Marijuana plants at a house in Lincolnshire
Marijuana plants are found in a raid on a house in Lincolnshire

Police seized half a million cannabis plants with a street value of more than 60 million last year in what senior officers say is the biggest crackdown yet on the home-grown cannabis trade.

Commercial drug farms run by organised crime gangs now dominate the cannabis market in the UK.

Stronger skunk varieties of the drug grown in high-tech hydroponic nurseries now make up 80% of sales.

The business is dominated by east-Asian criminal gangs, according to commander Allan Gibson, the lead officer investigating cannabis farms for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

"Now we have got to a situation where they are spread far and wide across the United Kingdom. The problem has reached into all areas," he said.

A lot of extortion and a lot of violence can be used among the organised crime groups that are battling for territory locally
Detective Inspector Neil Benstead

"It is easy to identify a factory and arrest the people in it. It is more difficult to get the people who set it up and provided the money, equipment and brains.

"It is one strategy to shut them down but if they keep coming back we've got to get into the criminal gangs, the financiers and the masterminds."

It's thought Vietnamese gangsters in Canada started to grow cannabis after losing control of the illegal timber trade.

The business has spread to the UK and other European countries where a constantly changing network of farms has been established, often in ordinary-looking homes.

"They got in first and are making money so they are the market leaders," said Commander Gibson.

"They are trying to be inconspicuous. They try to hide themselves away in the middle of a residential estate and pretend they are normal people living there."

Police raids

Specialist drug squad officers in West Yorkshire took Newsbeat on a raid of a suspected cannabis farm near Bradford.

A helicopter equipped with a special camera had pinpointed a large detached house on a quiet, residential street with a suspicious heat signature.

Detective Inspector Neil Benstead
Detective Inspector Neil Benstead led the raid on the house
Police often find drug factories after the powerful 600 watt bulbs used to light the cannabis crop set fire to the whole house.

A convoy of four unmarked police cars pulled up early in the morning and plain clothes drug squad officers smashed the back door with a metal battering ram while colleagues stopped suspects from jumping out of the windows.

Inside they found 220 young cannabis plants with a street value of between 40,000 and 50,000.

Detective Inspector Neil Benstead, who led the operation, told Newsbeat that Bradford was no different from any other big town or city in the UK.

"It has a drug problem and part of that problem is cannabis," he said.

"A lot of extortion and a lot of violence can be used among the organised crime groups that are battling for territory locally.

"They are very good at what they do and they are making a lot of money from doing it."

Property damage

Drug gangs typically offer to pay six or nine months rent up front to stay in average, residential homes.

The first landlords know about the problem usually comes when police raid the property, often finding thousands of pounds worth of damage.

One landlord said he had no reason to be suspicious when a student offered to rent his old three-bed, terraced house in the midlands.

"I came round and viewed it in the second month. It was absolutely fine and all the furniture was in the property," he told Newsbeat.

"After that when I tried to get round they said they were either in lectures or working, which I know now was just a lie."

When the police raided the property all the furniture had been removed, huge extractor fans had been installed, water damage had destroyed a ceiling and there were 471 pots of cannabis upstairs.

The tenants had bypassed the electricity meter and they were taking large amounts of power directly from the mains supply.

He says the damage caused isn't covered by his landlord's insurance and the bill for repairs caused could set him back 25,000.

"You can see why it is called organised crime because it is seriously organised. The work and the preparation that has gone into it is unbelievable," he said.

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