25 plants, £40,000 of income: home-grown cannabis blamed for new criminal turf war

Soaring demand for super-strong strains has caused explosion of gun crime

To the websites that promote their seed, the sticky pungent buds of Waikiki Queen, Bob Marley, or Amsterdam Indica provide an easy-to-grow, low-cost alternative to seeking out a drug dealer.

Yet far from being used for postprandial chill-outs by responsible middle-class tokers, cannabis has become the ultimate criminal cash crop and part of an increasingly violent street economy.

Police estimate that when harvested four times a year, 25 cannabis plants – enough to fit on an average-sized kitchen table – can generate an annual turnover of £40,000. The lure of easy money and the burgeoning demand for super-strong home-grown is fuelling a rise in serious crime.

On Merseyside, where police are battling a 33 per cent increase in firearms discharges over the summer, it is estimated that at least a third of the shootings are linked to violent turf wars over cannabis cultivation.

Detectives, who discovered 130 cannabis farms in a single month earlier this year, believe the potential rewards and lenient sentencing are persuading serious crime groups to become involved in a business for which the basic tools are legally available.

Profits are being recycled into the criminal economy with payments for drugs made in guns as well as being used to bankroll heroin and cocaine-dealing operations, it is claimed.

Meanwhile, police intelligence elsewhere in the country has revealed that cannabis is financing gangs who rely on the forced labour of trafficked children from Asia to tend their crops. Last week, a gang leader was jailed for six years after police uncovered a network of cannabis factories in the Midlands and South-east run by a group of Vietnamese and British growers.

Cash generated by the illicit farms, most of which are sited within houses, is being laundered alongside money from prostitution through legitimate operations such as nail bars.

The number of recorded offences this year is expected to reach 16,464 – up from 14,982 in 2010-11, and police believe this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Merseyside's Assistant Chief Constable Andy Ward said the problem in Liverpool is being caused largely by local gangs.

Since April, 22 people have been injured in shootings in the city with one person killed. Most are gang-related with 28 of the last 33 victims refusing to co-operate with police.

He believes there is an increasingly urgent problem nationwide: "We are seeing a big increase in the criminal markets around cannabis.

"At the same time you are seeing the ability of individuals to actually grow cannabis and we are seeing this all over the place – sometimes at factory scale and sometimes in bedrooms within houses but actually to make significant amounts of money."

Countering the growers is not straightforward. There are fears a recent operation to smash cannabis farms around Liverpool may have destabilised the market for the drug, which he estimates is now up to 30 times stronger than it was in the 1960s.

"People are now arguing over drug turf. People are actually taxing drug supply or growers. They will go in and pinch stuff off them. There will be a shooting around it. There will be tit-for-tat between groups," he said.

While communities find themselves terrorised by the gun crime associated with cannabis, there are other victims forced to take part in the cultivation against their will.

Often it will be people who owe money and they [the gangs] will say 'You grow it for us' and there will be someone without any criminal background at all growing cannabis on behalf of other people," said Mr Ward.

Intelligence work carried out by Suffolk Police identified a link between large-scale cannabis production, people trafficking and forced labour for little or no pay in cosmetic nail bars, which were used as a front to launder stolen goods.

Dr Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said that cannabis production was not a victimless crime. "The reality is that a significant section of the UK's cannabis industry is controlled by ruthless gangs involved in child trafficking," he said.

Legal high? Cannabis and the law

Although cultivating cannabis to supply on a commercial scale carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, the purchase of items needed to grow the drug is legal. A dizzying variety of soil-free hydroponic equipment – lights, nutrients and instruction videos – are freely available on the internet and from so-called "head shops" within the UK. But because of the intensive amount of high-energy 600w lights required to replicate ideal growing conditions, energy companies are able to tip off police when they notice a sudden spike in a domestic electricity usage. Police also use helicopters with infra-red cameras on board to find factories.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all