Nurturing a withered cannabis plant back to life once seemed almost compulsory for a generation of students. Now the size of the crop has changed. Startling new evidence reveals how vast plantations of marijuana are being cultivated throughout Britain among respectable suburban properties and the smartest family homes.
Yet it is not the police that the army of illegal growers should fear: the gasman is now leading the crusade against cultivators of home-grown dope. Growing has become so widespread that energy companies calculate that up to £100 million of electricity is being stolen to grow the drug.
British Gas, which is now a major supplier of electricity, will announce today that it has formed a special team to tackle the hash barons after detecting an upsurge in the use of sophisticated, power-draining hydroponic equipment to produce marijuana indoors without soil by pumping nutrients directly into the roots of the plants.
Although the notion of growing cannabis indoors has been celebrated in several films, only now has the scale of it started to emerge. The gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels captured the trend by depicting hippies cultivating a potent strain of marijuana in their London flat. Then came Saving Grace, starring Brenda Blethyn as a widow cultivating a commercial cannabis plantation in her Cornish greenhouse in an attempt to pay off her debts.
Blethyn’s character was described then as eccentric. Now new figures show that police have raided more than 1,840 properties since 2001 where cannabis plants were being grown. In total, 71,491 kilograms (157,600lb) of the herb was confiscated, enough to roll more than eight billion joints and a fivefold increase in the amount seized towards the end of the Nineties.
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British Gas officials recently found cannabis farms in Derby, east London, Bristol, Manchester and Kent. Elaborate growing systems were uncovered in buildings ranging from once-abandoned warehouses to prim suburban properties.
Tens of thousands of small-scale cannabis farms are sprawled across the UK. Police believe there are hundreds in London alone.
Driving such demand is the eclipse of traditional Moroccan hash resin by home-grown skunk as one of Britain’s most popular drugs for both criminals and recreational users. In addition, many believe the drug’s recent reclassification means dealers feel they are less likely to be targeted by police.
The City of London force found four homes last month that had been converted into drug farms and could deliver about 10 kilos of cannabis every five months. Every available inch was used to produce top-quality skunk. The vast amount of equipment required to grow the plant had been plugged direct into the national grid.
Harry Metcalfe, general manager of the British Gas investigating unit, said: ‘It is a serious problem, but we have to remind people that you don’t have to be a drug baron to be caught.’
Suspicions were raised earlier this year when a couple at Sidcup in Kent were convicted after gas inspectors found a large cannabis-growing operation, using stolen electricity, at their home.
Mark Wiltshire, spokesman for the energy regulator Ofgem, said: ‘We are concerned about this problem and we have started to review thefts. There are safety risks.’
Millions of homeowners were paying more for their power as the hash barons increase their trade. An estimated £340m of electricity every year is stolen, and some experts believe a third could be used to grow cannabis.
The proportion of growers using hydroponic cultivation systems had more than trebled between 1994 and 2000 - from 6 per cent to 19 per cent - while the use of high-powered lighting more than doubled to 41 per cent.
Over recent years the number of high-profile cannabis farm cases has increased. Last year a cannabis greenhouse was found on an industrial estate in north London with space for 1,000 plants, powered by stolen electricity. Lottery winner Reginald Tomlinson was jailed after using his prize money to set up a cannabis factory. Despite his windfall, he had siphoned off £1,300 of electricity to power his drug farm.04 Jul 2004