Merseyside police seize £120m of cannabis in raids on farms during pandemic

3 June 2021, 13:14 | Updated: 3 June 2021, 13:17

By Chris Chambers

It's 7.30am and as we approach a row of terraced houses in St Helens, officers prepare to strike.

Following a tip-off from a member of the public, the Matrix team at Merseyside Police has been granted a warrant to force entry into a house where it is believed there is a cannabis farm being grown.

As the door goes flying, officers charge in, identifying themselves as they go. As they step back an amber glow is visible coming from behind a curtain.

The information was spot on. Behind the curtain lies a room full of large cannabis plants. On the ceiling there is cabling, lighting and electrical fans to keep the plants cool.

Sergeant, Richie Melton, is leading the operation: "Upon arrival we forced entry and have secured two Albanian adults who at this time are under arrest on suspicion of cultivation of cannabis.

"We've got around 50 or 60 adult, mature cannabis, plants, UV lights, plants in pots. I don't know if this is a rental accommodation, but I suspect it is and they have little or no regard for who owns the property."

During the course of 2020, police in Merseyside shut down 219 different cannabis farms - an increase of almost 25 percent on the previous year.

Of those 219 properties, 208 were found to have electricity abstracted illegally putting the occupants and neighbours at subsbtantial risk of fire or even electrocution. From those properties, 30,007 plants were seized with a value of around £120m.

"Sergeant Melton, added: "Someone has hacked into the electrical wiring system. They've bridged the metering system which is very dangerous, it could cause a fire, and poses a risk not only to the occupants but the attached dwellings as well. To run a cannabis farm takes a lot of power and they don't want to pay for it. There's kids toys here, so I don't know if there's any children been here, but this place could go on fire at any time."

A walk upstairs unearths more plants, hidden in the bedrooms. On the walls there are drawings of cannabis plants and a picture of a revolver.

As officers lead the two Albanian occupants - a male and female - to the yellow Matrix police van, crime scene investigators arrive to start looking for the evidence that could lead them to the gangs behind these cannabis farms.

Daniel Brown is on CSI duties: "Most often in places like this we get DNA from things like water bottles or drink bottles. We can also get things like clothing, latex gloves that they use for the cultivation, gardening gloves, jackets or wooly hats. There are usually significant forensic opportunities.

"It is very disheartening to see the living conditions in places such as this. The occupants willing to put their children at such risk, because farms such as this carry immense risk of fire, flood damage, damp, horrid living conditions."

With the occupants in custody, it is the job of the Cannabis Dismantling Team to pull apart the cannabis farm and dispose of the plants at a secret compound which LBC News has been given exclusive access to.

Matt Brown from the CDT unbolts the giant metal container which is home to the contraband: "We have a number of bags, sealed up containing varying amounts of cannabis plants. We keep them in this container so they can rot down and turn into a compost material.

"There's different types, fresher ones at the front and some older ones towards the back, in various stages of breaking down. The smell is very pungent and gets worse when they've been in the container for longer. It'll smell like a fresh cut plant at first and it's very individual.

"After it's been here for at least two weeks, we move it onto the next stage to rot down further and then it goes to landfill and gets destroyed. The metal growing equipment we seize is weighed in and the proceeds from that go to the Police and Crime Commissioner's fund - all to charity.

"We value each plant at £1,000 so you can imagine there is millions of pounds in this container at the moment. Security is the main priority. We're in an undisclosed location and there are numerous layers of security to get into our container. It's more like Fort Knox."

During the pandemic the number of farms being shut down on Merseyside has increased by almost 25 percent. A combination of people being at home more and spotting unusual behaviour in their streets, and police having less 'normal crime' to deal with, has given officers more opportunity to act on information from the public and pull the plug on these dangerous, gang-driven drug dens.

Matt explains how organised criminals are at the centre of this cannabis trade: "Merseyside has a number of organised crime groups (OCGs) and they will hear of neighbouring gang grows that they want to take from, break into them and try to get as much as they can from them. We have a large Albanian OCG on Merseyside growing cannabis farms on a much larger scale and a large Vietnamese OCG - they are prolific in the Merseyside area."