It’s not just the fear of prosecution and jail that Britain’s secret cannabis growers are watching out for – it’s increasingly the threat of violent, armed criminals stealing their crop, according to an analysis by VICE World News.
Under cover of darkness one night in February 2020, a crew of 10 young burglars, some armed with machetes, broke into a cannabis farm hidden in a suburban house in Brierley Hill, a town on the outskirts of Birmingham. But the raid was interrupted by the owners of the £250,000 crop, who rushed to defend it, armed to the teeth with two crossbows and a sword.
One of the burglars was cornered, and in the struggle weed grower Saghawat Ramzan shot two hunting bolts at him. The first missed and impaled Ramzan’s brother Waseem. The other bolt buried itself into teenage burglar Khuzaimah Douglas, a kickboxing champion who represented England. Both victims died soon after from massive blood loss. In February this year, three men, including Ramzan, were jailed for life for their murder.
Since domestic cannabis cultivation began in the mid-2000s to replace smuggling as the major source of weed in the UK, grows have spread to suburban attics, abandoned high street shops, and rural warehouses. Alongside this new industry, peopled by a mix of professional criminals and otherwise law-abiding tokers, a new type of crime has emerged and thrived: cannabis farm theft.
There are fears that with the stakes higher than ever—due to police weed farm crackdowns in the wake of a lockdown boom in cannabis use and cultivation – that the battle to protect and steal lucrative cannabis grows is intensifying. Over the last decade an arms war appears to have developed between those defending them and those raiding them, wielding anything from guns, arson attacks, crossbows, ammonia and knives to defending themselves with chainmail stab vests.
Despite regular incidents of violence linked to cannabis farm theft, it is a criminal-on-criminal offence that largely exists under the radar of the authorities – until the brutal violence spills out onto the streets, or results in homicide.
In April Wesley Hendrickson and Leon Wright were jailed for life after they stabbed two men, killing one, while carrying out a pre-planned robbery of a cannabis farm in Essex, in the east of England.
The killers drove up from London at night 18 months ago with four accomplices armed with swords and weed plant packing equipment to a street in Westcliff. Awoken from their beds by the gang, Asqeri Spaho, a 25-year-old from Albania, was stabbed to death, while the other man was stabbed in the arm but escaped by jumping through a first floor window. Spaho lay dying for several minutes as the gang packed the cannabis plants and returned to London.
The same month nine people were arrested after armed rivals fought each other in Luton when a cannabis farm burglary spilled out onto the streets. The week before, a man guarding a cannabis farm in Coventry was hacked with a machete by late night raiders. He survived the attack and staggered out of the grow house to get help, and was later arrested on suspicion of cannabis cultivation.
In March a London man was jailed for being part of a crew who tortured residents of a home in Leicestershire with knives and boiling water, before being overpowered themselves, because they wrongly thought the house was being used as a cannabis farm. Five days later three Albanian gangsters were jailed for manslaughter after shooting to death Kurdistan born cannabis farmer Hamawand Ali Hussain in Hartlepool, while in South Wales police launched a murder investigation into the cannabis farm-linked death of 23-year-old Tomasz Waga. Four men have been charged with his murder.
“Cannabis production not only feeds a multi-million pound illicit market, but cannabis is also an increasingly potent and harmful drug and a key driver in other serious crimes,” the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for policing cannabis, Jason Harwin told VICE World News. “We will continue to focus our efforts on the criminals and organised gangs who are destroying lives and fuelling the violence we’re seeing on our streets.” Harwin said police tactics against cannabis cultivation were a success, with a 13 percent increase between March 2019 and March 2020 in the overall amount of cannabis seized.
But for Gary Potter, a criminologist at Lancaster University specialising in Britain’s secret cannabis cultivation industry, criminals were feared more than the police by most growers.
"Lots of cannabis growers I have spoken to have talked about the threat of being targeted by criminals trying to steal their crops or extort money,” he told VICE World News. “Almost everybody we spoke to had heard stories of growers falling victim to theft, violence or extortion as local gangs sought to take advantage of the fact that growers are themselves committing criminal offences, said Potter, who estimates the number of cannabis growers in Britain to be in the “hundreds of thousands”.
With cannabis growing being illegal, criminals assume that growers will be reluctant to report this to the police. “They are right – some growers I have spoken to who have been victims have not gone to the police. Others have gone to the police only to then be treated as criminals rather than as victims, even when the crime they have been victim to is clearly more serious than the crime they committed.” Potter said that some victims of the weed stealers have taken matters “into their own hands”, including responding with violence or by contacting other “nefarious individuals” they know to respond on their behalf.
“Once we were shot with an air rifle and one of the boys lost his eye. One of them in Derby tried to spray me with acid from a big coke bottle but I protected myself with a curtain.”
One woman growing cannabis in her council estate was visited by local criminals demanding she paid them a tax of her profits. She ended up chasing them out of her house with a baseball bat. Potter said he also spoke to a young couple who were expecting a baby who had their home raided by a gang who stole their plants. When they went to the police they were promptly arrested.
Looking after a cannabis farm is a scary job, and it is one often handed to modern day slaves who have been trafficked from countries such as Albania to work in appalling conditions inside farms for little or no money. Even if they manage to avoid being attacked, some do not survive the experience, such as Albanian father of three Margaritis Xhindi, killed in a fire at a locked-up weed farm in Brierley Hill, the same small town where Douglas was murdered four months previously.
“I never said no to a job, I was good at breaking into places. We usually went in there with balaclavas, three or four of us, always at night.”
Despite these and other similarly horrific instances of people being murdered for what are essentially plants, most cannabis farm thefts are carried out without the need to resort to extreme violence. Because this is a crime that is happening so regularly that it is now a profession. Often, thieves find no-one at home, or those looking after grows are let off without being attacked. Most weed stealers want to get out with the illegal plant booty as quickly and quietly as possible.
Lee was a full time cannabis farm robber across east London, Essex, Kent and the West Midlands between the age of 14 and 19. He went on the straight and narrow three years ago, but he is one of many individuals and gang members, such as the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-style gang jailed after raiding at least 19 cannabis farms across Britain, who have decided to specialise in stealing other people’s illicit grows.
Lee, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of being arrested, said that he has burgled around 150 properties in order to steal weed plants. The first time he robbed a cannabis farm, Lee also stole a maltreated dog he found there, he was arrested. But he ended up as a specialist weed burglar, working on-demand for an east London crime gang. They gave him tip-offs about grows and Lee also found farms using a heat-seeking gadget used by plumbers that detects the intense lighting used to grow weed.
“I never said no to a job, I was good at breaking into places,” said Lee. Despite the dangers, only around a third of burglaries were a success because the gangs which employed Lee were not interested in plants that were not fully grown. “We usually went in there with balaclavas, three or four of us, always at night.”
Like all cannabis burglars, and police too, Lee had to be careful of booby traps that are sometimes laid to protect grows. “We had to be careful of booby traps like kettle wires on the door handle, chicken wire on the floor by the door, smashed glass under window sills, or bowls of acid on top of the doors.”
Lee said most places had people looking after them, but often the occupants did not want any trouble. “I never went armed, I don’t like using weapons on burglaries, it can escalate. Normally we surprised the people looking after the grows, and they did nothing. I had a strict rule, I only robbed the stash and the money, I never took any kids’ Xboxes.” But he said violence was never far away. “Once we were shot with an air rifle and one of the boys lost his eye. One of them in Derby tried to spray me with acid from a big coke bottle but I protected myself with a curtain.”
Potter, who is undertaking a global survey into illegal cannabis growing, hints that it is the inherent illegality of growing cannabis in the UK that is the root cause of this new, increasingly hostile frontline of the drug trade.
“There is an irony here in that the fact that growing, even on a small scale, is a crime that can lead to more serious crime, both with violence used against growers and violence used in retaliation."