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16/12/2007 00:00:00

UK: Gangs are setting up cannabis farms in prosperous neighbourhoods

The rise of the suburban high: Gangs are setting up cannabis farms in
prosperous neighbourhoods

The view over the detached houses off Nottingham Road on the outskirts
of the Derbyshire town of Ripley takes in mature, well kept gardens with
their brimming shrubberies and rows of clipped holly and fir.

Lying close to a golf course, these houses date from the Thirties and
have been home to generations of stable, affluent families who have
invested money and effort into preserving them, planning and tending the
landscaped gardens, putting up ornamental shutters and paving the drives.

There is, though, an obvious exception - one house where the leaded
windows have been blown out and the charred remains of furniture and
timbers litter the conservatory and the rear garden.

All that is left of the roof are blackened beams and as time has passed,
scavengers have added to the destruction, ripping out fireplaces and
other period features.

This isn't an inner-city terrace, nor is it part of a neglected estate.

Yet the burned-out house is evidence of a new type of criminal activity
taking place in the strangest of locations and on an almost unimaginable
scale. Cannabis farming is sweeping Britain.

Almost every square foot from the attic to the hall in the Nottingham
Road property had been turned over to plants.

The fire started when electricity, illegally siphoned from the mains to
run heat lamps, came into contact with water from a sprinkler system.

As the flames spread, neighbours reported spotting two young Vietnamese
men running away.

Commercial cannabis cultivation just like this is everywhere. An
activity once linked with the darker corners of London or Manchester has
taken root, literally, in comfortable suburbs and affluent market towns.

Vietnamese run "farms" have been found in 41 out of the 43 police force
areas in England and Wales and five out of the eight forces in Scotland.

So vast is the production, it seems almost certain that the UK is now
exporting the drug.

As Detective Chief Superintendent Stephen Whitelock, of Strathclyde
Police, explained, the choice of a prosperous area is typical.

"Tons of cannabis are being produced in places with high-quality housing.

"They avoid the social exclusion areas which attract a lot of police
attention and go for a quiet neighbourhood where people don't
necessarily know a great deal about each other.

"These criminals can afford to set up in places where homes typically
fetch between £500,000 and £750,000. It is such a cash-rich crop."

I have spent the past month on the drugs trail with police in Scotland,
Derbyshire and Merseyside investigating the UK's cannabis supply for a
documentary series on BBC Radio 4.

I had never spent much time thinking about a drug which, although
illegal, attracts much less attention than heroin or cocaine.

But that changed earlier this year when I went back to Norris Green, the
council estate in Liverpool where I grew up.I was shocked.

My family moved there in the Sixties when it was a showpiece estate,
swapping a two-up, twodown terrace near the docks for a semi with a garden.

Back then, me, Mum, Dad and my three sisters thought Norris Green was

Residents were honest, hardworking and Godfearing, people who respected
the forces of authority, from the parish priest to the local PC.

I went back because Norris Green is now notorious.

Cannabis farmer

Today in Norris Green pockets of the estate are dominated by criminals
who sell drugs.

Their homes are easy to spot, with their lavish Grecian-style porticos,
ornate walls and railings and rows of luxury cars parked outside.

They make life miserable for the lawabiding majority forced to live
alongside them and who are terrorised into silence.

As I interviewed residents, we were menaced by a young man in an
expensive 4x4 who drove past repeatedly, slowing to a crawl and glaring
through the windows.

It is the recruitment by these drug dealers of young teenagers that has
resulted in the reckless violence that killed Rhys, shot in the neck by
a stray bullet as he walked home from football practice.

At an office in Liverpool city centre I met Bob Croxton, a 43-year-old
who served two prison terms for supplying drugs but who now runs an
agency to rehabilitate offenders.

He said drug dealers in Norris Green and elsewhere were so keen to
minimise their own risks of getting caught, "they are employing amoral,
nihilistic kids to run their errands for them".

He added: "It might seem easy at first to give a teenager a pat on the
back and to tell them what a big gangster they are but they have given
them money and access to guns and now they can't control them.

"They are running amok and the laws that we have were never framed to
cope with them."

Cannabis is the most popular drug in the UK, with one in ten people aged
between 16 and 59 claiming to have used it in the past year.

It is particularly popular with problem youngsters who smoke it from the
age of ten.

The drug was downgraded from Class B to Class C in 2004 by the then Home
Secretary David Blunkett, and it meant that possession was no longer an
arrestable offence.

Since then Youth Offending Teams claim they have seen cannabis use soar
among young offenders.

In a national survey earlier this year, two-thirds of teams found that
use of the drug had risen by between a quarter and threequarters.

In some areas nine out of ten young offenders were reported to be using

At the Strand shopping centre in Norris Green, a 17-year-old boy
described how he started smoking cannabis three years ago and moved on
to selling it, partly because he was influenced by his sister's
boyfriend, himself a dealer.

"I saw all the money he had for designer clothes and I thought I'll have
a bit of that," he said.

The teenager confided he had moved on from street dealing to helping
with occasional punishment beatings of people with drugs debts.

"You don't like doing it but that's the way it is."

We met professionals working with young offenders who believe that their
violent behaviour is linked to cannabis use.

Declassification coincided with the introduction in the UK of strains of
the drug which are more toxic and potent than the cannabis of old.

In particular the new-type drug can induce feelings of paranoia and some
argue that it leads to a dangerous mindset where there is scant regard
for life.

Radio 4 sent me to investigate the flow of this new and more dangerous
drug on to the streets.

What I quickly discovered was that home-grown cannabis --cultivated by
criminals who have often come to the UK from Vietnam --touches the lives
of a whole range of people, from teenage criminals on estates such as
Norris Green to the middle-class residents in the affluent suburbs of
Glasgow and Derby.

Harry Shapiro, from the independent research charity DrugScope, who has
collated figures from UK police forces, has no doubt that the number of
cannabis farms is increasing.

"You can set up one of these in an otherwise respectable suburban street
and that makes it particularly hard to trap," he said.

"It is a highly lucrative industry, well organised with huge demand.

"When you have that situation invariably you find the traffickers are
four, five steps ahead of the enforcement agencies, not least because
they have vast sums of money to spend.

"Even when police seize vast amounts of the drug, it is written off as a
business risk that doesn't seem to make much of a dent in the operations

Cannabis farming began in London about six years ago, sometimes in
factory units but most often in houses bought or rented for that purpose.

Some farms hold in excess of 2,000 plants. Every drugs detective I spoke
to was adamant that police are disrupting only a tiny fraction of a now
rampant industry.

In London that "tiny fraction" amounted to more than 1,500 cannabis
farms raided in the past two years.

In Derbyshire police detected 200 last year, while 61 were closed by
Strathclyde Police in the past nine months.

So why are Vietnamese criminals targeting the UK? Some commentators date
their arrival to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 when the
British Government agreed to take several thousand economic migrants
held in detention camps.

An official at the United Nations in Hanoi told us that the Vietnamese
have a long history of migration driven by war and poverty, they are
entrepreneurial and are adept at spotting market gaps.

A gap in the market for cannabis opened up, according to the United
Nations, when a crackdown in Morocco cut its export of cannabis resin by

According to DrugScope, home-grown cannabis now accounts for 60 per cent
of the UK market.

Another factor which may be attracting the cannabis growers to our
shores is that, by and large, they are getting away with it.

Declassification pushed cannabis down the list of police priorities just
as politicians intended, giving officers time for tackling more serious

As a result officers say they are sometimes slow to act against cannabis
farms, if they act at all. And when houses are raided they usually house
only a single "gardener", an illegal immigrant way down the criminal chain.

At the Home Office, where a review of cannabis classification is under
way on the orders of Gordon Brown, officials who defend the downgrading
of cannabis usually point out that despite the fact that use may be
increasing among young offenders, overall there has been a recent slight
decrease in the popularity of the drug.

Police agree that the cannabis being farmed is not all making its way
into the UK market.

For Merseyside Detective Inspector Bill Stupples, it raises the
disturbing possibility that we are becoming world exporters of this drug.

"I am quite convinced that it is centrally controlled and that the
product is being exported, otherwise we would be up to our eyes in the
stuff and we're not," he said.

"There is a market for it in the UK but when you think about the amount
that is being grown there is too much,so it must be going somewhere else.

"I think they are using places such as Merseyside as the base for
production and it wouldn't surprise me if it was being sent to France,
Spain, Germany, the Netherlands or wherever."

It is a puzzling set of circumstances for the elderly residents of the
quiet spot in Derbyshire where the detached house fell victim to
cannabis farmers.

A couple in their 80s who live nearby said they had been watching
television when the roof exploded in a great roar of flames.

"It was such a shock," the woman told me. "The new owner had knocked on
our door to introduce himself, and he seemed such a respectable oriental

"We had no idea about any cannabis and we think it is a disgrace. It has
lowered the tone of this neighbourhood. It is dragging us all down."

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Author: Evening Standard via UKCIA

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