In recent years, UK police have quietly eased off their prosecution of cannabis farmers. Between 2011 and 2014 the number of people taken to court for growing cannabis fell by 87 percent. London – officially, 47 percent vegetation; unofficially, a sooty, cramped, human ant heap – is not, on the face of it, a cannabinoid-abundant Elysium. But even so, there isn't a single borough here that hasn't been home to a cannabis farm in the last three years. And by far the top borough for cannabis farming offences is Croydon. Over a three-year period from 2013 to 2016, 61 cannabis farms were found in the borough that gave us Kate Moss, Dane Bowers, Stormzy and a Royal Mail depot rave where a man ripped off his finger and carried out partying. Over the same period, 170 cannabis production offences were recorded. The most popular boroughs for cannabis farms happen to be some of London's most deprived. They are Croydon (59), Barking and Dagenham (54), Tower Hamlets (33), Lewisham (32) and Newham (29). The least likely boroughs in which to find cannabis farm offences are some of London's wealthiest: Kensington and Chelsea (2), Kingston Upon Thames (3), Richmond Upon Thames (2), Wandsworth (4), Hammersmith and Fulham (5) and Bexley (5).
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Kensington and Chelsea is London's most expensive area, with average property prices exceeding £1 million. So wealth may be an indicator of low cannabis farm frequency. Of course, it's also possible that rich people are simply better at hiding them from the police. Because the figures are from a Freedom of Information request detailing recordable offences (which can include convictions, cautions, reprimands and warnings), unless the police have discovered it, it won't be in the data. The statistics don't distinguish between personal and commercial use. The definition of a cannabis farm used by the Met is a premises that has been adapted for the production of cannabis so "that normal usage would be inhibited", and containing items "solely concerned for the production of cannabis", such as hydroponics and high intensity lighting. The number of plants is "irrelevant" because "the crop may have already been harvested". Because assumptions can only be drawn from recorded offences, it is possible that boroughs with a lower number of offences could have more cannabis farms. They may simply be better hidden – or police may not be looking quite as hard. This may sound unlikely, but in 2015 a cannabis "forest" the size of a football field was discovered in Kingston-upon-Thames, which has the second lowest frequency of cannabis farm offences in London. So you may be sceptical about the effectiveness of policing cannabis farms in the borough if it's possible to cultivate 150 plants to maturation outdoors without attracting any attention. Most cannabis farms aren't outdoors. They are contained indoors, pumped up with hydroponics and expensive lighting equipment. The vast majority of offenders are white British men from 25-34 (there's actually been a decline in activity among South East Asian offenders, although using Vietnamese growers on low or slave wages remains a trend, according to police). Large scale grows, with a value of millions, might be found in warehouses, and there aren't a lot of spare warehouses in London, so if you want to find the cannabis farming capital of the UK you have to look outside the city.
The ONS compiles the national statistics on drug seizures. The London region clocks up the highest number of cannabis seizures (32,047), and the largest total of herbal cannabis seized (800kg). But it has only the fourth-highest quantity of cannabis plants seized – so, for that reason, you could assume it's not the place where most of it is grown. In fact, Essex is the cannabis farming capital of the UK; 55,154 plants were seized there in 2015/16 – approaching twice the number seized in London for the same period (32,021). The other top contenders were West Midlands (36,081), Greater Manchester (35,080) and Merseyside (24,387), Some of these farms are huge. One of Britain's biggest ever finds is a 2010 Essex warehouse with 8,000 plants valued at £2 million. However, Essex's high number of cannabis plant confiscations could also mean that people in Essex are just better at getting caught.
Wiltshire, in the South West, is a case in point. The county is not, if you look at the statistics, a cannabis cultivation hotspot; it had just 295 plants seized in 2015/16 – the fifth-lowest number of plants out of any police force region or authority (excluding British Transport Police and Border Force). Also, Wiltshire is home to a two-storey nuclear bunker that was converted into one of the largest, boldest cannabis farms ever seen. Three men squatting in the bunker had grown cannabis in every one of its 20 rooms, with a street value of at least £1 million. Vast shipments of cannabis are still being seized by Border Force, which made a series of huge cannabis finds in 2015: 225kg from Ghana intercepted in June, then 380kg in a cheese lorry the same month, and then more than a ton in September. Of course, it's unlikely that these high profile, high volume arrests will deter the growers who are farming cupboards, bedrooms and warehouses in every corner of the UK.
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