The vast scale of the lucrative cannabis manufacturing operation being run by organised crime gangs across Northern Ireland is beginning to emerge.
PSNI Drug Squad and uniformed officers have recovered millions of pounds worth of cannabis during busts at properties in 38 towns, cities and villages across Northern Ireland.
From cities like Belfast and Londonderry to small villages like Belleeks in Co Down and Ahoghill in Co Antrim, police have swooped on almost 80 properties as part of their major investigation into the production and distribution of cannabis.
Further suspect properties have been earmarked and are due to be searched over the next few weeks.
Police say they have shut down a number of large cannabis factories since the investigation was launched last year. Many of the factories were discovered after members of the public contacted police about suspicious activity in neighbouring properties.
The PSNI has said that to date they have searched 74 properties, made 76 arrests and charged 52 people — all from South East Asia.
During the searches they have recovered 21,500 cannabis plants with a street value of £10.75m and seized 113 kilos of herbal cannabis with a street value of £1.1m as well as £120,000 cash.
Police believe that organised crime gangs have brought immigrants from South East Asia into the province to help in the cultivation of cannabis which is then being distributed across Ireland and the UK.
The officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Inspector Peter Moore, from the PSNI Drug Squad, has said that organised UK crime gangs have moved into Northern Ireland believing they would be able to run their drugs operations without detection.
“Organised crime gangs have turned their attention from mainland UK to Northern Ireland, presumably because they thought they wouldn’t get caught. They were wrong,” Mr Moore said.
Mr Moore also warned: “There is a significant threat of fire with cannabis factories. A house full of electric fans and heaters, combined with water, is an obvious fire risk. People who run cannabis factories have been found to tamper with electricity supplies in a very amateurish fashion. Put all of these ingredients together and you have a recipe for disaster. You have a great potential for destruction of property, serious injury, even death.”
Earlier this month Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde described the emergence of cannabis factories across Northern Ireland as a “fairly new phenomenon.”
Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan added that many of the people involved are illegal immigrants. He said however that there is currently no evidence that any of the people involved had been forced to work.
By Deborah McAleese