Police fear people in Blackpool struggling to make ends meet could be tempted to turn to growing cannabis on an industrial scale.
The warning comes as it was revealed cannabis with a potential street value of more than £1m recovered by police in Blackpool last year.
Figures released to as a result of a Freedom of Information request show 1,623 plants were recovered last year.
Using the figure of £840 per plant often quoted in court cases, the total value of last year’s Blackpool haul comes in at around £1.35m.
That is despite police raiding fewer premises in 2016 than in the previous year.
Figures obtained show police only discovered cannabis cultivation at 24 premises in 2016, down from 38 the year before – indicating the increasing scale of individual growing operations.
People who grow cannabis may be directly funding organised crime whilst others may be tampering with electricity supplies to power their cannabis farms, which can have lethal consequences for neighbouring properties
Police today said the increase in the number of plants may well indicate that the benefits of large scale cultivation in Blackpool were well worth the risk to those involved in the black market trade.
It is thought some financially struggling smaller-scale growers may have been tempted to enlarge their operations to be part of a potential lucrative underground industry.
The increase in plants recovered is party down to one significant raid, which yielded a crop of more than 1,000 plants.
That building at the corner of Rigby Road and Tyldesley Road contained a growing operation spread over two floors.
And police believe such finds indicate the lengths to which people are willing to go to make cash out of the illegal trade.
Inspector Russ Farrand from Blackpool Police said: “The figures show that although fewer premises were uncovered in 2016 than in 2015, more cannabis plants were found overall. This may be because there is a greater demand for the substance or it may be seen as economically viable in austere times to take the risk of producing it on a bigger scale.”
However Police warned those tempted to grow cannabis on a commercial scale their class B crop was easy to detect.
Insp Farrand said: “Because of its distinctive and strong smell it is also very difficult to disguise cannabis cultivation, particularly in residential areas.
“Ultimately the cultivation of cannabis is a serious crime.
“People who grow cannabis may be directly funding organised crime whilst others may be tampering with electricity supplies to power their cannabis farms, which can have lethal consequences for neighbouring properties.
“In addition cannabis can also have lasting physical and mental health effects on users.”
Police still rely on community intelligence to uncover the majority of cannabis farms.
Two warrants were carried out in Blackpool last week - one by neighbourhood officers in South Shore another in Cookson Street, close to the town centre.
Both raids were carried out on the back of information from the general public.
With magistrates increasingly reluctant to give out warrants without solid evidence from numerous sources, the information received from communities is more valuable than ever.
And Inspector Farrand made clear officers would still use their contacts across the resort to sniff out growers.
He said: “We would like to reiterate that we always act on information passed to us to disrupt this type of activity. However we rely on communities to raise concerns with us so it is important everyone knows what to look out for – from screened-off windows and unusual amounts of heat emanating from a property to signs of bypassing electricity meters and strange smells or sounds.
“We would urge anyone who spots anything suspicious in their local community to contact us.
“They can do that either by calling us on 101, speaking directly to their local neighbourhood officer or by calling independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”
In 2015 a total of 46 people were arrested in connection with cannabis cultivation in Blackpool.
Of those arrests three people had their case closed, 22 went through the courts, three were subject to no further action and 16 people were dealt with by police.
Two remain subject to an ongoing investigation.
A total of 34 suspects were arrested in 2016. 20 of those were dealt with by the courts, six by police and the cases of seven people remain under investigation.
In one case no further action was taken.
Cannabis finds in Blackpool
Police in Blackpool swooped twice in 24 hours to suspected cannabis growing operations.
The first discovery was made on Monday when officers raided a property in Cookson Street.
Plants and equipment were removed from two rooms.
The same week officers from the South Shore Neighbourhood team executed a warrant at an address on Bambers Lane.
A total of 10 plants were seized.
Police used bolt cutters to access an industrial unit following the discovery of a suspected cannabis factory in Blackpool. Officers were seen forcing their way into the disused unit in Mitcham Road, off Cornford Road, Marton.
They were seen carrying lighting and electrical equipment out of the property.
Police officers took two days to clear out a cannabis factory such was the scale of the operation. Officers found 1,129 plants growing over four floors of the former Britainica College building in Tyldesley Road, when they entered the premises following a call from a member of the public.
A cannabis factory was found at a teenager’s home when officers came looking for her boyfriend who was wanted by police.
The teen was caught growing plants in a tent in a small bedroom at the address.
Police found a £16,000 cannabis factory in a bedroom when they carried out a drugs raid on a businessman’s home in Blackpool.
Police arrived just in time to uncover a cannabis growing operation close to a Blackpool primary school.
Officers following a tip off from a member of the public carried out a raid on a house in Fredora Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Stanley Primary.
A growing problem
Cannabis cultivation, from small to industrial scale, has been transformed by the availability of information over the internet.
Online guides now detail how to put together equipment to grow sustainable crops.
A simple Google search reveals dozens of websites carrying tips on establishing a farm.
That is despite the drug still being categorised as class B with potentially significant consequences for those caught.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 those caught potentially face 14 years in custody with options available to judges typically ranging from a discharge to 10 years behind bars.
The UK’s approach differs from some European nations and even from some US States where attitudes are more relaxed.
Last week the the Dutch lower house of parliament voted 77 to 72 on a proposal to regulate a cannabis production supply chain for the drug.
The value of intelligence
Police rely on the public to uncover much of the cannabis cultivation in Blackpool and beyond.
Evidence from local communities is crucial in tracking down suspected drugs factories and officers cannot ask a court for a warrant to enter premises without several pieces of highly graded intelligence.
Officers say the burden of proof required by courts is increasing, making it more important than ever to have communities onboard in the battle against drugs.
The Gazette visited the site of a suspected drug factory in Blackpool in January.
Officers were busy clearing lights and other growing equipment from the industrial unit.
And those working in nearby businesses explained how suspicions had been aroused.
One man said he had reported suspicious behaviour to the police on numerous occasions.
He said a strong smell of cannabis had been noticed in the area several weeks before police carried out their raid.