Heavy price for growing your own

MANY unsuspecting neighbours are oblivious to what may be happening in the house next door to them.

The manufacture of illegal drugs is rampant. Vacant and rented houses in both rural and urban locations and large unused warehouses have been converted into cannabis “grow factories”.

And it’s not only prominent criminal gangs that have focused on grow-your-own operations that run into tens and hundreds of thousands of euro.

Many people, not known in a criminal sense to gardaí, are taking chances of growing cannabis for personal use or for distribution among close friends.

It’s not rocket science to grow and cultivate cannabis.

Cannabis plant seeds are openly available, especially over the internet and, within six weeks or so, the plants reach maturity and are ready for cultivation.

According to senior gardaí, the number of people getting involved in producing homegrown cannabis has increased significantly in recent times and, as a result, seizures are also increasing.

In one operation alone last year, codenamed Operation Nitrogen, gardaí raided 60 major cannabis-growing factories around the country and seized plants with a street value in excess of €6m. A fully mature plant is estimated to be worth €400 and, in some cases, they are being grown in their thousands by criminals.

At the time of Operation Nitrogen, Garda commissioner Martin Callinan said organised crime gangs had shifted to this type of production following the closure of head shops and because it was a low-maintenance, high-return activity.

Operation Nitrogen was set up by the Garda National Drugs Unit to specifically investigate the increase in cannabis being produced and sold in Ireland.

However, while there is no doubt that criminals are getting involved in the practice on a larger scale, there is also believed to be a significant increase in the ordinary punter growing their own.

Some grow the plants solely for themselves, while other grow the plants to sell on to a small and trusted circle of friends.

In part, the switch to homegrown cannabis is said to have been down to American airstrikes on a major opium-growing region in Afghanistan, with the result that heroin wasn’t getting into this country.

In addition, gardaí said the recession had led to people having less money to spend on drugs and, because they couldn’t afford heroin or cocaine, they were turning to cannabis instead.

In November, scientists at the Forensic Science Laboratory said herbal cannabis cultivated in sophisticated grow houses across the country is more potent and more likely to cause psychosis than imported herb and resin.

Tests showed skunk or weed produced from cannabis factories have higher levels of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Des Corrigan, the chairman of National Advisory Committee on Drugs, said many of the plants being grown here are genetically selected to ensure they produce high levels of THC, but they also lack a substance called CBD, which seems to protect the brain from the effects of THC, which can include psychosis.

The bigger drugs manufacturers have turned to converting all sorts of properties into cannabis growing operations.

They prefer the secluded nature of backwater areas because they are less likely to be detected.

Last week, gardaí discovered an estimated €800,000-worth of cannabis plants being cultivated in a disused factory in East Cork. It was reportedly the biggest growhouse ever discovered in the county.

A few days earlier, a stroke of luck led to the discovery of a growhouse in Skibbereen.

Firemen putting out a blaze at a house on North St discovered a large number of cannabis plants and alerted gardaí.

The plants were valued at over €200,000. It is believed one of the heaters used to promote the plants’ growth overheated and caused the fire.

Last month, gardaí discovered cannabis plants at a growhouse in an industrial unit in Mullingar which they estimated to be worth €500,000.

West Cork has always been a popular area for growing cannabis.

The climate is mild because of the Gulf Stream and is also remote. In addition, a number of people from foreign countries who like the drug have settled there. However, there are as many “homegrown” culprits as well.

In one operation last year, gardaí aided by a sniffer dog seized more than €200,000 of cannabis in that region.

Gardaí targeted homes and business premises in Kinsale, Ballinspittle, Timoleague and Kilbrittain, and arrested four men.

Snipe the sniffer dog was used again in December when he honed in on a €250,000 cannabis haul near Kilbrin in north-west Cork.

Gardaí were unable to detect the drugs, which were concealed “deeply” within a vehicle.

But Snipe’s acute sense of smell did the business.

On Dec 16, gardaí uncovered a cannabis growhouse during a planned search of a business premises in Duleek, Co Meath, and seized the cannabis plants with a potential street value of up to €400,000.

Also a few days before last Christmas, two men were arrested after gardaí seized €250,000 of cannabis in a house in Mayfield, Cork.

This was a follow-on operation after the discovery of €600,000 of cannabis in Glanmire and Carrigtwohill the previous month.

On Dec 1, gardaí discovered 120 plants at a rented house at Rathcoole, in north-west Cork.

Last September, gardaí discovered 500 cannabis plants at various stages of growth near the village of Collon, Co Louth.

At around the same time, they raided another cannabis growhouse in Co Laois and a second one which was under construction in Co Kildare.

They found 1,500 plants, along with heat, lighting and irrigation systems, in a shed at a house near Portlaoise.

There are varying degrees of growing. Some people do it big time and some don’t.

Take, for example, the case of Daniel Siebold.

Gardaí discovered that he had a small cannabis-growing operation going on in a tent in his bedroom at 63 Riverview Estate in Tower, Blarney.

He pleaded guilty to charges of possession of cannabis for his own use and cultivation of plants of the genus cannabis without a licence.

The value of the drug was assessed by the prosecution at €2,400.

Siebold, 23, was told he could do 240 hours of community service instead of three months in prison.

You don’t have to be young either.

Sionad Jones, 52, a Welsh biochemist, enjoyed growing and smoking her own cannabis.

She pleaded guilty in November to cultivating cannabis (18 plants) and possessing it for her own use.

Jones, of Maughanaclea, Kealkil, Bantry, couldn’t resist telling Cork Circuit Criminal Court that she would have no problem having gardaí come and carry out follow-up checks in her house provided they didn’t bring in mud on their shoes.

Last July, a court heard that a couple with an “alternative lifestyle” in West Cork had €34,000 worth of cannabis plants at their home and used the drug as a system of barter

Barry and Jacqueline Robinson Turner, who are from London and living at Shancashel, Kilmichael, Macroom, Co Cork, pleaded guilty to different charges arising out of the Garda drugs search at a prefab concealed by bales of hay in a haybarn at the back of their home.

A sniffer dog sniffed out the cabin in the hay barn on Sept 2, 2010.

In total, 45 saplings, 32 half-grown plants and 36 fully grown plants were found during the garda search.

Judge Patrick Moran imposed a four-year suspended jail sentence on Barry Robinson Turner and a two-year suspended sentence on Jacqueline Robinson Turner.

The previous May, drug squad gardaí discovered 30 cannabis plants growing in a hairdresser’s attic over the garage at his home.

The house belonged to Manuel Wren, of Wren Lodge, Ballyhilogue, Mourneabbey, Mallow.

Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin ordered him to pay €10,000 to the state so that a three-year jail sentence would be suspended.

Smoking cannabis can be a lifelong habit for some people.

Take the case of a 60-year-old man who had been smoking it for 43 years.

Welshman David Barnes, who lives in Cork, has been smoking cannabis since he was 17 years old.

He was caught with €2,000 of cannabis at his home at Flat 5, Egerton Villas, Military Rd, Cork.

Judge Con O’Leary gave Barnes, who is originally from Swansea, a suspended sentence of two years.

Last May, a Scottish man wasn’t so lucky when he appeared at Cork Circuit Criminal Court.

Judge Patrick Moran heard that Glaswegian Joseph Stevenson — the son of a retired policeman — had turned a five-bed house in Skibbereen into an elaborately laid-out cannabis factory for producing “cut-price weed”.

The court heard that Stevenson, aged 65, had been growing cannabis plants at his home at Tooreen, Skibbereen, for 18 months before he was caught.

He believed in the medicinal qualities of cannabis and used it himself. He also admitted supplying it to eight people.

Gardaí found 320 plants at the house and Judge Moran gave him a five-year jail sentence.

The same month, gardaí discovered a sophisticated cannabis factory located in an isolated East Cork house, with plants worth around €100,000.

The raid took place at a remote dwelling near Ballincurrig, Midleton, and a man in his late 30s was arrested.

Officers discovered upwards of 200 plants, at various stages of growth.

According to gardaí, the plants had a street value of almost €100,000.

They also recovered cannabis-growing equipment including special lighting, heaters and dehumidifiers.

Last April, gardaí attending a traffic accident in North Cork made an unexpected discovery near the scene.

They had been called to the accident near to Buttevant and noticed four plastic refuse bags discarded on the side of the road.

The bags contained some harvested plants and growing paraphernalia.

Superintendent Pat McCarthy said it was possible the owner of the bags “panicked” when they saw what they thought was a checkpoint and threw the bags out of the car.

The same month, detectives found a sophisticated cannabis factory with plants at various stages of cultivation in a house in Cork City.

The operation was discovered when gardaí swooped on a three-bedroom house in Fair Hill

Gardaí discovered cannabis plants as well as a quantity of cannabis grass which had just been harvested, and dried.

The cannabis was found in the three bedrooms of the house and gardaí estimate the value of the drugs to be €15,000.

Paraphernalia associated with cannabis cultivation was found in the house, including lighting and heating equipment.

A senior garda who has been involved in many drug detections said that landlords, in particular, could help them if their suspicions are aroused.

“If a tenant becomes over-protective of their rented property and won’t let a landlord in to inspect it, then suspicions should be aroused. Landlords should watch out for any structural changes that a tenant might make, which could indicate they might be growing cannabis.

“If an electricity bill becomes much higher than normal that could mean that the tenant is using heaters to accelerate plant growth,” the garda source said.

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