The rise of the home-grown high

Cannabis plants are thriving in backyards and window boxes, reports Jason Bennetto
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The Independent Online
Police and drugs advice centres are recording a sharp upsurge in the number of people growing cannabis at home. Home-growers, using strong "skunk" varieties available through specialist shops and mail order, are exploiting a legal loop-hole that allows them to buy cannabis seeds and the growing equipment legitimately.

The cultivation of cannabis plants is illegal, but not the sale or purchase of seeds. Greg Poulter, deputy director of Release, the national drugs and legal agency, said his organisation was dealing with a record number of inquiries and cases involving cannabis cultivation. "We're getting calls from across the country - a couple of plants on a window sill, to people converting their lofts and running commercial businesses," he said

The most recent official figures for seizures of plants are for 1994, when the police discovered 57,800, an increase of 40 per cent on the previous year. It is normally assumed that the police will only recover about 10 per cent of the drugs in circulation - so there could be at least 500,000 illegal cannabis plants being grown.

Many cultivators grow the drug for their own consumption, but others produce crops worth tens of thousands of pounds to sell on the street.

Cannabis plants are very easy to buy and grow. A shop assistant at Sunlight Systems in Stratford, east London, offered a variety of seeds from pounds 40 to pounds 70 for a packet of 10, including the very strong variety nicknamed "skunk weed". Growing equipment, which includes trays and a lighting system, starts at pounds 75. The shop's "most popular" model costs pounds 180 and, according to the shop worker, is enough for "eight good-sized plants". The assistant stressed: "We can sell you whatever you need, but it is illegal to grow cannabis."

Four crops can be harvested a year, after which the leaves and flowering tops are dried and usually smoked. Cuttings and new seeds can be obtained from the old plants.

The police believe the present legal regime is a farce, making it extremely easy for DIY dope users. Anyone caught with a couple of cannabis plants is likely to be cautioned; 20 to 50 plants will probably bring a fine, but maybe a jail sentence. More than 50 plants will almost certainly lead to jail.

Detective Constable Peter Webster, of the Merseyside Drug Squad, has also recorded a big increase in Liverpool in the number of people growing cannabis. "We've been finding plants everywhere - in lofts, gardens, in cellars, and even in wardrobes," he said.