Sowing the seeds of drugs: The easy-to-buy items that harbour a hidden secret
Everything here is completely legal," a worker at a Black Country grow shop tells me.
I'm browsing a range of cannabis growing equipment at a nondescript looking store on a back street near one of the region's biggest retail parks.
It's one of dozens that have sprung up across the West Midlands in recent years, catering for the rising number of people who are willing to risk prosecution for growing their own weed.
Like most of the shops this one claims to sell multi-use horticulture equipment, although a quick glance around shows the vast majority of products on offer are aimed squarely at the cannabis farmer.
Products for sale include Sugar Babe, a nutrient used to boost plant growth advertised as 'new to the UK direct from Amsterdam'.
There's an array of specialist grow tents, including BudBox, as well as high powered light systems, fans, soils, nutrients and temperature gauges.
"The price of weed is high and the quality may not always be great, so a lot of people are finding out how easy it is to grow it themselves," the salesman adds.
"As long as you take the right precautions the chances of getting caught are low."
These 'precautions' involved several metres of ventilation shafts, high powered extractor fans and a grow tent.
After half an hour I'd bought the gear required to set up my very own clandestine cannabis factory, with enough space to produce plants with a street value of around £5,000 within three and a half months.
The equipment cost a little under £200 and included a giant grow tent, ventilation ducting and special nutrients.
The shop worker was even helpful enough to pass on a few grow tips so I could get 'the best yield'. He also flagged up a number of 'head shops' within walking distance where I could get hold of cannabis seeds.
"We can't sell seeds in the same shop as the grow equipment," he explains.
"That's illegal. But there's a loophole in the law that means some shops can sell them as long as they mark them up as souvenirs.
"They're not selling the actual plants so it's all above board."
The first store I visit has four different types of seeds on offer, including Big Easy and Devil's Harvest available at a cost of £30 for five seeds.
Another shop nearby has an even bigger range, including the lethal sounding AK-47, a strain famed for its high THC content and sustained high that is well regarded by potheads the world over.
As I'd been told, the seeds are marked up as souvenirs and are openly on displaye alongside a sign announcing: "Grow information is for reference only."
Buying the gear to set up my own cannabis grow took me less than an hour and was no different to popping out to Asda to do the weekly food shop.
But the ease in availability and low cost of these materials has inspired an explosion in the growth of cannabis farms across the region.
It has led to calls from MPs to regulate the sale of specialist grow equipment.
Weed farms have become so commonplace that West Midlands Police has its own dedicated cannabis disposal team, which works around the clock to gather intelligence and raid suspected properties.
Last week the team completed its 2,000th seizure in the last five years. February alone saw more than £2.3 million worth of cannabis plants seized in 10 separate raids across the Black Country.
This involved 4,500 plants and included a major set-up in Bloxwich that was only discovered when the cannabis factory – set up in the basement of a two-storey building near the High Street – caught fire.
The vast numbers of farms being uncovered is mind-boggling.
Last July police swooped on a £600,000 operation on the Shenstone Industrial Estate in Halesowen.
The raid resulted in Vietnamese illegal immigrant Toan B Chu receiving a three-year jail term after he admitted producing cannabis and abstracting electricity.
He was said to have been exploited by other criminals due to his illegal residency status.
A month after that raid 1,000 plants were discovered at a former charity headquarters in Brierley Hill. Police said the set-up was in danger of sparking a major fire due to the amount of wiring and growing equipment packed inside the premises.
And last week a near £500,000 operation including 19 tents was brought down on an industrial estate in the Park Lane area of Wolverhampton.
Cannabis disposal team manager Mike Hall says the types of set-up the team come across can vary from large scale commercial operations to bedroom grows, as more previously law-abiding citizens move into the grow-for-profit market.
"A lot of people are having a go at it, and generally for criminal reasons," he says.
"We hear people talk about medicinal cannabis to help with arthritis, but then they are climbing up into their loft every three hours to water their plants.
"We have had people claiming they are growing it to compensate for having to pay the bedroom tax.
"Thousands of pounds in cannabis grown for having to pay a few quid a week in tax is some compensation.
"The type of cannabis they are growing is not medicinal. It is recreational cannabis grown mainly for profitability.
"They can make between £400 and £1,000 per plant. We see a lot of big commercial set ups but we attend a lot of properties where people are growing half a dozen plants in their house.
"We don't specifically target users of cannabis but we have found that people who historically used cannabis are expanding and becoming growers and dealers because it is so profitable.
"It means we have seen otherwise law-abiding citizens who have entered the drug trade. This opens them up to the criminal underworld as they start to supply it."
One of the most deeply concerning issues surrounding cannabis production is the explicit link to other forms of crime.
A report by the National Police Chiefs' Council highlights a connection between the cultivation of cannabis and modern slavery.
The report, based on three years of data from police forces around the country, also says commercial production is frequently used to fund other criminal activity, including money laundering and the distribution of Class A drugs.
"People who grow cannabis and sell it aren't spending their money on shoes for orphaned children," Mike says.
"It is going to Class A drugs, it is going to firearms. It is the cash point of the criminal world.
"If you want to get involved in human trafficking you start with cannabis and build your funds up from there.
"We might see a raid where we seize huge amounts of cash, other forms of drugs or guns. The evidence is clear that other forms of criminality are frequently linked with cannabis."
Mike says that raiding cannabis farms is considered some of the most dangerous work that officers undertake.
Many operations use vast quantities of electricity, often illegally bypassed and poorly wired up.
The effects have been seen numerous times around the region, with the last few months alone seeing large-scale blazes breaking out at properties used for cannabis production in Newbridge, Bloxwich and Smethwick.
It means that the first job on any raid is to secure the property against the threat of fire.
West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson says: "Cannabis factories are a danger on a number of levels.
"It is not just the production of the drugs and the dealing on the streets, there are other issues to bear in mind – such as the people who are often smuggled into the country illegally to operate them and the dangerous rewiring of electrics."
This year there have been calls in Parliament for cannabis to be legalised for recreational use, with the Liberal Democrats leading the charge.
Leader Tim Farron has endorsed a motion to extend the party's support for the medicinal use of the drug, after announcing he believes that 'the war on drugs is over'.
It was presented in the Commons last month by Norman Lamb MP, who said he hoped the bill would 'start an open and mature discussion about the UK's drug laws'.
He says: "My biggest concern is the risk that prohibition poses to public health. No criminal is interested in your welfare, and no drug is made less harmful when bought from organised crime networks. People have no idea of the strength or safety of what they're buying.
"A regulated market in the UK will take profits out of the hands of organised crime and reduce both health and social harms."
The Lib Dems claim evidence from Washington and Colorado, where the use of cannabis has been legal since 2012, shows that a legal market would be preferential to the current state of affairs.
But Mike says that any arguments for the legalisation of cannabis neglect to address the wider impact of such a move.
"It would impact on other legislation," he says.
"We have relatively new laws on drug driving, but would we want the battle we have had with drink driving for decades to happen all over again?
"It could mean 30 years of hard publicity and no end of terrible accidents to get that through to people.
"You also have to ask what would happen to the thousands of unemployed drug dealers.
"They would turn to other areas of crime.
"And underground growers could profit further, as their product would not carry the tax and VAT of legal cannabis.
"Legalisation would not destroy the market for illegal cannabis. Tobacco and alcohol are legislated against but it doesn't stop criminals from smuggling or counterfeiting."
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