Cannabis trade worse than that of Class A drugs, senior police officer warns
PUBLISHED September 11, 2012
Assistant Chief Constable Andy Ward of Merseyside Police said hardened criminals were taking advantage of more lenient penalties for cannabis dealing compared to drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and heroin.
He warned that there had been an "explosion" in cannabis production and said it was now causing more problems for the police than the trade in some Class A narcotics.
The North West region in particular has already seen the consequences of a rise in tension between criminal gangs, with a surge in the number of shootings in recent months.
Mr Ward, who chairs the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit, said gangs were attracted to the lucrative cannabis market because they saw it as less risky both in terms of getting caught and also the punishments they might receive if convicted.
But he said the violence that accompanied the drug trade was just as extreme, with criminals willing to wound and kill in order to protect their corner of the market.
Seizures of cannabis in recent years have risen steadily in some areas, with one recent operation involving six forces resulting in a haul of the drug with a street value of almost £9 million.
Criminal gangs are also recruiting cannabis "farmers" who grow the drug in large quantities, in carefully controlled conditions.
Some of those involved use sophisticated "hydroponic" growing systems to increase the yield and the strength of the drug.
But the equipment is relatively cheap compared to the potential profits and factories can easily be set up in converted lofts or garages.
Over the past three years more than 5,000 cannabis factories containing almost 350,000 plants have been identified by police in the North West alone.
Police have seized drugs with a value thought to be in excess of £500 million, but many hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cannabis is believed to be finding its way onto the streets undetected.
Mr Ward said: "There has been an explosion in the market for cannabis. Unlike class A drugs, which the criminals can't make themselves, there is the opportunity to grow cannabis in the bathrooms or bedrooms of houses. They can make a lot of money very quickly at less risk [to themselves] and less risk in terms of sentencing.
"Criminals who have previously been involved in something else are drifting into the cannabis world … The amount of money being made by criminals should be reflected in the sentencing."
Mr Ward, who also heads up Merseyside's Matrix Unit, which was set up to combat drug and crime, said there was a clear link between shootings and the cannabis trade.
He said: "A lot of these shootings are linked to activity around cannabis. We are seeing big increases in cannabis production on Merseyside. Individual groups are fighting turf wars … We have huge issues around cannabis."
While sentencing guidelines allow for heavy penalties for the growth and sale of cannabis, in practice, sentences are often much more lenient than those involved in the production of Class A narcotics.
Mr Ward has warned that the current punishments are not providing enough of a deterrent to stop the trade becoming even more widespread.