With the school run underway on a bitterly cold January morning, half a dozen police officers pull up outside a terraced house in Birmingham, surrounding the front door.
There are no answers to shouts of “police” so an officer uses a red battering ram to break down the front door. Inside, a shirtless, bleary-eyed man appears.
“Why are you f**king battering the door like that?” he demands as officers enter. A dog barks in the background as the police explain they have obtained a warrant to search his home. The man is placed in handcuffs and detained.
Two officers walk upstairs and make a beeline for a closed door. Behind it, up to 150 cannabis plants are “drying out”.
Dozens of buds believed to be skunk – unpollinated cannabis plants which contain higher levels of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) – have been harvested on a green mesh shelving unit. Each bud has an estimated street value of £20.
The walls of the room are wrapped in reflective material to trap heat; UV lights are rigged along the ceiling and an oscillating desk fan is fixed to the wall.
A large extractor fan appears to have been pushed up through the living room ceiling to help filter the pungency. There are timers, thermostats and pipework for what is understood to be an automatic fertilising system.
“This is a pretty standard set-up,” said training police sergeant Dan Donoher, who led the operation. “There are no plants growing here now, it has all been harvested. It’s not a huge operation but it’s a fair whack.”
A machete and a knife were recovered. Police said a man in his thirties was arrested on suspicion of cultivating cannabis and released under investigation.
From seedling to harvest, it takes four to six weeks for a cannabis plant to achieve maturity, but this is dependent on the sophistication of the environment.
When officers discover cannabis farms, one of their first tasks is to locate suspects and identify potential victims of exploitation.
Police will gather evidence before a Cannabis Disposal Team will bag up and destroy the drugs.
Some equipment is even salvaged and donated to worthy causes; heat lamps have been given to Warwickshire Cricket Club to speed up grass growth on patchy areas while compost is regularly passed on to community garden projects and allotments.
The raid attended by i was one of five carried out simultaneously across the West Midlands. Days earlier, police recovered 3,112 plants with a value of about £3m during a raid on a disused warehouse near Birmingham City Centre. Detectives suspect the three-storey cannabis factory was being used to fund organised crime.
Police found the electricity supply had been “bypassed to power the extensive lighting and extraction system” through a trench dug into the road to tap into the mains. In total the force confiscated cannabis worth £84m in 2021.
West Midlands Police is aiming for “the organised crime that sits behind” the trade. Detective Chief Inspector Nick Dale said: “This is a multi-million-pound business, it’s lining criminals’ pockets.
He continued: “The people at the top take most of the reward but face fewer risks. They will have people, what you might call farmers, who cultivate the cannabis and they might go between different cannabis factories; they may not feel they have anywhere to turn because they are involved in criminal activity.
“These people face a huge amount of risk because not only are they being exploited but they are vulnerable to attack.”
DCI Dale said rival gangs have been known to target and raid cannabis factories for material gain: “That brings violence and weapons in the streets; it’s not what you want in your neighbourhood.
“This is my personal view, but the level of violence used to target and steal people’s crops seems to be increasing.
“Vulnerable young people, recruited locally, will [be sent] to other parts of the country to sell drugs.
“Sometimes they’re armed to protect the drugs market and those individuals are put at considerable risk. It has a knock-on effect [for] potential drug turf wars in other parts of the country.”
DCI Dale called on the public to be vigilant to windows being taped over, the smell of cannabis and suspicious comings and goings from addresses.
“Serious and organised crime is often sophisticated and has a severe effect on communities,” he said.
“Everyone has a part to play by informing the police so we can understand the organised crime that sits behind it — and tackle it.”