In 2022, 12,500 cannabis plants were seized from commercial cannabis farms across Avon and Somerset, worth an estimated £7 million in street value.
Police are warning people of the dangers posed by those growing the Class B drug, including modern slavery, crime, and the risk of fire.
Cannabis farms are properties which are used to grow cannabis on a large-scale and often contain hundreds of plants. The properties are usually fitted with specialist equipment, such as high-intensity lights and fans, as well as a lot of electrical re-wiring, all of which poses a big fire risk. They can be found in residential properties, vacant commercial buildings, industrial units and warehouses, derelict buildings, and rural buildings and barns.
Exploiting the vulnerable
Many of these cannabis farms are run by organised criminal groups who will exploit vulnerable people, often victims of human trafficking or modern slavery, to cultivate the crop.
These victims do not benefit from the crimes they are forced to commit. They are coerced and forced into living and working on cannabis farms, trapped in properties for weeks or even months on end, with little or no facilities.
Superintendent Steve Kendall said: “We know the threat that the organised criminal gangs running these cannabis farms pose to our communities. It is not just the supply of the Class B drug which is a concern, but it is the far-reaching crime, violence and exploitation that is committed alongside it. Cannabis cultivation not only feeds a multi-million-pound illegal market in increasingly dangerous cannabis, it is also a key driver in modern slavery and criminal exploitation, which is why we urge people to report if they suspect it is happening near them.”
Criminals often take over the properties of vulnerable people in communities to facilitate illegal drug activity, this is known as ‘cuckooing’
Recently, officers attended an address in Southmead which belonged to a woman in her 70s who was being exploited by criminals, with the upstairs of her property being used to cultivate more than 100 cannabis plants, which have now been seized.
The woman had been living downstairs without access to shower facilities.
One person was arrested and subsequently de-arrested and is due to attend a voluntary police interview in due course.
Safeguarding was put in place for the woman and we have been working closely with partners in local authorities and housing to ensure she is able to live safely and free from harm.
How often is it happening in the UK?
In 2022, almost 17,000 suspected victims of modern slavery were reported to the Home Office in the UK. Of these almost a third were linked to criminal exploitation, of which a large proportion were forced into working for cannabis farms. Over two thirds could be attributed to “criminal”, “labour” or “labour and criminal” exploitation, with 40% of these being children under the age of 18.
Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Shelford: “Cannabis farms often look normal at first glance but blacked out windows, a sickly aroma and the sound of industrial fans can be just some of the signs a farm is set up behind closed doors.
“Organised criminals do not care about the vulnerable individuals they exploit and force into cultivating cannabis. Often restricted their access to the outside world to maintain the cannabis plants, amongst horrendous living conditions.
“I urge anyone who suspects a cannabis farm, to report what they know to the police.”
Modern slavery can be difficult to tackle as some victims won’t recognise they are being exploited, and many do not speak English, having been brought over to the UK out of fear, trusting those who have targeted and exploited their vulnerabilities.
Anti-slavery charity Unseen works with victims of modern slavery and operates the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline. This is a free, confidential service that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Unseen Director Justine Carter says: “The Helpline is there not only for victims of modern slavery, but for professionals and the public to get advice. If you see something you are not sure about, don’t hesitate to call us.”
Signs to spot if a property is being used as a cannabis farm
- Powerful, distinctive sweet, sickly aroma
- Frequent visitors throughout the day and night
- Blacked-out windows
- High levels of condensation on windows
- Noise from fans
- Large amounts of rubbish
- Unusual adaptations, such as lots of wiring and fans coming out of the building
Signs someone may be a victim of modern slavery
- Does not speak English
- Signs of physical abuse
- Lack of basic hygiene facilities
- Restriction on movement or not allowed to leave property
- Food parcels being dropped off
- CCTV around the building
Anyone with any suspicions about modern slavery or cannabis cultivation should contact the police on 101. Alternatively, they can call the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700 or make an anonymous call to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.