POLICE are raiding a cannabis farm a day in Scotland, with numbers of seizures rising rapidly under the new national force.
Crime gangs are turning to numerous smaller properties to minimise their risk of large quantities of drugs being uncovered, according to officers.
Cannabis is now seen as so profitable and low-risk that Scottish gangs are competing with those from Southeast Asia – and often working together – to try to meet demand.
Both the numbers of raids and the value of seizures are going up since the creation of Police Scotland in April, but it is the amount of properties now being used which is causing police most concern.
Previously criminals looked for big rural properties to grow the drugs. But equipment and techniques are now so advanced that almost any flat or house across Scotland is a potential farm.
Police Scotland is now collecting information from retailers such as B&Q and Homebase on customers who have bought equipment that could be used for growing cannabis.
But the equipment is also used by gardeners to grow some types of fruit and vegetables. The equipment is so sophisticated that the drugs being grown are typically 20 to 30 per cent stronger and police have fears over the mental and physical health effects on frequent users.
Europol has no intelligence of cannabis being exported out of the country to the rest of the UK and Europe, which suggests demand is coming from within Scotland.
Alan Cunningham, Superintendent of Safer Communities at Police Scotland, said: “We’ve seen a trend of an increasing number of cannabis farms. There are smaller cannabis farms, but more of them, and a big part of that is organised criminals spreading their risk.
“There’s a growing trend towards smaller and more residential, as opposed to commercial, properties and outlying factories.”
He added: “Our forensic analysis shows that home grown cannabis can be 20 to 30 per cent stronger than the resin that we saw four to five years ago.
“So there’s a public health issue in terms of mental health, but also the impact on the respiratory system.”
Police are locked in a technology race with criminals. Until recently a medium-sized room would be needed to grow about £12,000 worth of cannabis. The same amount can now be grown in the space occupied by a desk. The police’s own infrared technology, which identifies the heat required to grow the plants, is also advancing.
A cannabis crop can be fully grown within just two weeks, so organised crime gangs can rent a property on a short-term lease, empty it, install heating equipment and cultivate the drugs very quickly.
David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, warned of the dangers posed by cannabis use and the growing demand indicated by the increasing number of raids.
Liddell said: “Cannabis remains the number one illegal substance that people use.
“The level of seizures is an indication of the level of demand, and despite that level of seizures, the availability does not seem to be an issue for users.
“High strength cannabis has also increased in popularity and the potential for more side-effects. There is increasing evidence of people moving towards dependent use. Various surveys have looked at this issue and showed a mixed view in terms of the level of harm and news from elsewhere adds to people’s confusion.
“We have to look not just at the drug but the context as well – it is quite different for vulnerable young people using, compared with someone in a more settled environment.
“I think the perception of cannabis and the consequences of possession of small amounts gives probably a very confused perception.”
The last year for available statistics on seizures, 2011-2012, showed 94.3 per cent of class B seizures involved at least one type of cannabis, with cannabis resin seizures slightly down to 9,778, but an increase of 45.2 per cent for herbal cannabis.
The total quantity of herbal cannabis taken was down, despite the rise in the number of seizures.