Police forces across the country are staging a renewed crackdown on cannabis farms amid warnings that the factories are a key factor in the growth of modern-day slavery.
Among the forces taking part is West Yorkshire Police, who are developing an education programme on the multi-million pound crime for local councils.
Officers from the region’s largest police force are also working with landlords to put out information on commercial cannabis growth and releasing a newly-commissioned YouTube video on the subject.
Information is being gathered to try to measure the scale of the illegal industry, which authorities claim produces increasingly potent forms of the drug in farms that can be staffed using forced labour.
The Yorkshire Post revealed on Saturday that hundreds of victims of forced labour and human trafficking are going undetected across the region, with many kept behind closed doors in brothels or cannabis farms. Police have vowed to tackle the problem.
Detective Superintendent Steve Smith, North Yorkshire Police’s lead on human trafficking and modern slavery, said men from Vietnam and China had been found growing cannabis in rural parts of the county in recent years.
He said: “The guidance is now that the police should view them as possible victims and not necessarily as offenders.
“If two or three Vietnamese people turn up, as once happened near Northallerton, in a barn, growing cannabis, you have to ask the obvious question, how did they get here, particularly when the people who own the land are from Yorkshire.
“The gardeners and landowners in that case went to court. As society becomes more alert to the plight of these people you would expect such an investigation to take a slightly different course.”
A national police awareness scheme, running this week, follows a campaign earlier this year where “scratch and sniff” cards emulating the smell of growing cannabis were handed out to members of the public by 17 forces, in a Crimestoppers scheme.
The charity said that the number of reports about cannabis farms rose by a third in those forces for the month following the campaign, and by 20 per cent nationally.
Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Jephson, who is national lead for cannabis-related crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said commercial cannabis cultivation is a problem “which affects all areas of our country”.
He added: “Cannabis cultivation not only feeds a multi-million pound black market in increasingly potent and dangerous cannabis, which can have lasting physical and mental health effects on users, but it is also a key driver in modern slavery, with people forced to work on cannabis farms and strong-armed into servitude, either because of their untraceability as illegal migrants, or because they are in debt to the people in control of the operation.”
“It is important that we work with communities to make sure that 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.”