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Police launch operation to close cannabis 'factories'

September 25, 2006

A nationwide crackdown on cannabis "factories" has been launched by police alarmed by figures showing that the high-strength "skunk" variety of the drug now accounts for 60 per cent of the UK market.

An operation involving 17 forces in England and Wales will run over the next two weeks with the aim of closing hundreds of cannabis cultivation units, ranging from vast warehouses on farms to terraced suburban houses crammed with plants, and disrupting the crime gangs behind them.


Skunk contains far higher quantities of the chemical THC than herbal or resin-based cannabis

The growth of skunk, which has overtaken more "traditional" herbal or resin cannabis, has accelerated over the last six years.

Skunk is significantly more profitable, selling at up to 120 an ounce, compared to up to 70 for herbal and up to 50 for resin.

British gangsters are heavily involved in "hydroponic" cultivation of skunk - growing plants in secluded warehouses using liquid nutrients. The largest warehouse raided by police contained 20,000 plants worth 8 million.

In recent years there has also been an explosion, particularly in London, of small-scale factories in residential homes, in which many hundreds of plants are grown under intense light powered by electricity illegally and dangerously diverted from the mains supply. There have been a number of fires. This area is dominated by Vietnamese gangsters using illegal "trafficked" workers.

Police identified at least 700 cannabis factories in London alone last year and there is clear evidence that the skunk trade is expanding across the UK, leading to the operation coordinated by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

Skunk contains far higher quantities of the chemical THC than herbal or resin-based cannabis. In the mid-1990s only around 10 per cent of cannabis in the UK was believed to be skunk.

But the percentage in the last 10 years has spiralled to 60 per cent of the market, a calculation based on police seizures.

The growing consumption of skunk will fuel the debate over whether the decision to downgrade cannabis from a Class B to a Class C narcotic in 2004 was appropriate for a new form of the drug which can be between four and seven time stronger than traditional "dope" - and whether the decision had contributed to the growth of skunk.

Concerns have been raised about the health effects of skunk - particularly in those with some types of mental illness - and its potential to become more of a "gateway" than herbal/resin cannabis to harder drugs.

Gangsters are thought to consider cannabis dealing to be a "lower risk" than dealing in hard drugs but police chiefs argue that cultivating and trafficking cannabis can still attract sentences of up to 14 years.