Scotsman exclusive: Growth industry Scots don’t need

POLICE have raided 100 cannabis factories capable of producing more than £60m worth of the drug for home and export. More than 100 cannabis factories capable of producing nearly £60 million of a super-strong variety of the drug every year have been found in Scotland.

The Scotsman can reveal the alarming scale of cannabis cultivation in a country which has never before witnessed large-scale illegal drug production.It comes as Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, insisted he is determined to see cannabis upgraded back to a Class B drug in order to send a signal to young people that its use was “unacceptable”.

But a government drugs advisory panel appears set to recommend that it stays at Class C .

In Scotland about 43,000 plants – mainly a high-strength variety known as “skunk” – have been recovered from houses, garages, and disused factories since south-east Asian crime gangs began setting up illicit production plants in the summer of 2006. An explosion in cannabis cultivation has been witnessed over the past 18 months as organised crime, sensing massive profits from a previously non-existent drug export trade, has moved in after being forced out of England and Wales.

For an outlay of about £30,000, individuals can set up a cultivation capable of reaping more than £500,000 worth of cannabis every year. They rig up high-powered lighting and watering systems in order to grow the skunk plants quickly. Despite the high demand for cannabis in the UK, police suspect the operation has yielded so many plants that much of it is being exported into lucrative markets in Europe and beyond.

The phenomenon has alarmed police and prosecutors, triggering a massive operation to root out factories and causing a senior judge to take the unusual step of issuing sentence guidelines to ward off potential growers. The trade is fuelling a growing human trafficking problem. A number of illegal immigrants involved in running cannabis factories, mainly from China and Vietnam, have been arrested since a Scottish police crackdown – called Operation League – began in December 2006. Some are locked in properties 24 hours a day in temperatures exceeding 38C as the bosses threaten to harm their families back home.

Detective Chief Superintendent Stephen Whitelock, head of intelligence at Strathclyde Police, said: “Within Strathclyde to date we’ve identified 70 cultivations and recovered over 35,000 plants. That equates to a maximum street value of £11million. More than 50 people have been arrested. “Across Scotland we’re talking over 100 cultivations and over 43,000 plants worth around £14million.”

Each plant is capable of producing four harvests every year, meaning the 100 factories smashed by police would have created an annual revenue of nearly £60 million had they gone undetected. More than two-thirds of the cannabis factories shut down by police have been found in Strathclyde, but others have been uncovered in towns virtually the length and breadth of the country, including Ayr, Thurso, Newmachar, Cambuslang and Livingston.

As well as the production of the illegal drug, police are extremely concerned about the risk of a fatality if a factory catches fire.

One officer told The Scotsman that the vast amount of heating equipment used to cultivate cannabis, and the fact that many of the factories tap straight into the electricity mains supply to avoid detection, meant it was “miracle” there have been no serious blazes. Each factory typically uses around 20 times the power used for a normal house to grow the cannabis. The cost to power companies is thought to be about £2 million a year.

Police, who say the number of officers on Operation League fluctuates depending on the amount of information they receive, have been known to monitor power supplies and even use infra-red cameras in spotter planes to identify areas of unexplained heat. Mr Whitelock said Operation League had been a huge success, revealing that most factories had been uncovered following tip-offs from the public.

“The main point of Operation League was to put it into the public arena, the threat of organised crime. We’ve had a great response from the public, speaking to officers and phoning Crimestoppers. “The public are generally aware what to look for – that gives us the eyes and ears of five million people in Scotland.

“They’ve had a significant impact on those involved in this area of criminality. But it remains a profitable concern for those involved. “They’re using Scotland as a base to cultivate cannabis for a market elsewhere that has yet to be identified. “Scotland is a consumer society for drugs. But we are now seeing cannabis being produced within our own shores.” He added: “We have identified the production sites, we have identified those involved in the manufacture and production of the plant. But there are obviously plants being cultivated and that is where our knowledge gap is: where do the plants go?”

Police believe the same crime network is involved because of similarities in electrical work and joinery they have found in their raids. Mr Whitelock appealed to landlords to help stamp out cannabis cultivation, insisting they have a responsibility to check what is going on in their properties.

He said police had a “better understanding” of the problem thanks to Operation League. “But it would be naive to say there are no other cannabis activities ongoing,” he added. “The primary people involved are south-east Asian organised crime groups. There are many links also with indigenous crime groups,” added Mr Whitelock.

Last November, Scottish judges were given tough new sentencing guidelines in an attempt to crack down on cannabis farms. Lord Hamilton, the Lord Justice General, said the move was needed to tackle a big increase in the farms, warning that even low-level cannabis “gardeners” should expect to face between four and five years in prison.

Source: The Scotsman.4.4.2008

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