Illegal trade in cigarettes, fuel and cannabis heats up as criminals seek quick profits
ANALYSIS:The traditional drugs trade is declining but other crimes are on the up in the recession
THESE WERE once the preserve of Asian-run crime cartels based on both sides of the Border, but Irish criminals are increasingly turning to cannabis growhouses as a way of making quick profits and to satisfy the exponentially growing demand for herbal cannabis.
Garda sources say that while individuals growing small numbers of cannabis plants, mainly for their own consumption, have always been an issue, organised gangs have moved into commercial production in the past five or six years.
“They believe they won’t get caught and if they get just a few crops grown they can produce plants worth a few million euro,” said one Garda source.
The attractiveness of this fastest growing corner of the drugs trade is borne out by the Garda’s figures for seizures of plants.
When the first commercial operations were discovered in the Republic in 2006 the value of cannabis plants seized by gardaí jumped to €242,400 from €47,6700 in the previous year.
The figures then gradually increased to total seizures valued at €1.54 million in 2010 before jumping to €10.61 million last year.
Last year’s figure is attributable to new heat-seeking technology being used on the Garda helicopter to identify houses in which temperatures are much higher than those around them – the tell-tale sign that a growing environment has been established for cannabis.
The Garda National Drugs Unit has established Operation Nitrogen to combat the growhouse problem. It has been one of the busiest and most successful organised-crime operations of recent years.
Houses are usually rented by gangs before being kitted out with high-wattage lamps to imitate the heat and brightness of the sun.
Irrigation systems are also fitted to the rows of plants and chemical enhancers are fed into the water to increase the potency of the cannabis from harvested crops.
The fuel price rises in recent years have seen a resurgence in the illegal fuel industry as more motorists than ever appear willing to buy laundered fuel at black-market prices.
The problem had been dominated by the Provisional IRA but as the Troubles faded so too did the presence of fuel “laundries”, which are mainly found near the Border.
Sources believe many plants go undetected for years before they are discovered.
In 2009 there were no laundry finds in the Republic, although nine were found last year and four have been found so far this year.
These illegal plants are known as “laundries” because they effectively “wash” fuel.