Ireland's growing industry
Criminal gangs have been setting up cannabis-growing cottage industries in Irish suburbs, renting expensive houses and installing sophisticated irrigation and heat lamps to net crops worth up to €280,000 in eight weeks. CONOR LALLY, Crime Correspondent, reports on the lucrative drug cultivation under our noses
IT’S MID-AFTERNOON when the illegal Vietnamese immigrant hears the noise he has been dreading. Someone is banging on the hall door, trying to rouse the occupants of the house. The caller’s efforts continue for a few minutes. It’s the landlord. With no sign of life in the rented house he decides to let himself in. Hearing the key in the lock, the Vietnamese man decides to bolt. He flees through a back window and down the streets of this middle-class south Dublin suburb.
As the landlord pushes open the hall door he sees that things are not quite as they should be. He sees wires running from the ESB meter through the hallway. As he follows the cables upstairs he notices a makeshift wooden panel nailed to the landing wall. It is covered in sockets from which dozens of wires run into the bedrooms.
A maze of small tubes also runs into the bedrooms from the bathroom. As the landlord pushes the doors open he can hardly believe his eyes. There before him, in the house he rents out in the middle of Rathfarnham, are rows and rows of cannabis plants, 500 in all, each about a metre high.
He has just discovered one of Ireland’s cannabis grow houses, in his own house. The man who has just fled was tending to the lucrative crop on behalf of one of the Vietnamese-led international crime gangs now operating here. The landlord contacts the Garda Síochána and reports his find.
Later that evening news filters through of the discovery of another, unrelated, grow house to the west of the city, in Lucan.
A total of 700 plants, at varying stages of maturity, are found in the two houses, valued at more than €300,000. It has been another busy day for Operation Nitrogen. Run by the Garda National Drugs Unit, it aims to catch the newest entrepreneurs on the illicit drugs scene, the grow-house gangs. Since July the detectives working on Nitrogen have discovered cannabis plants valued at more than €4 million in 15 grow houses in at least nine counties. Over the past two years finds of plants and drugs have been made in at least 19 counties, with a total value of close to €10 million. But those in the know concede that the finds most likely represent only a tiny proportion of this Vietnamese-dominated trade.
Several gangs have seen a number of their grow houses raided recently by the Garda. Detectives believe some of the grow-house gangs are dealing in cannabis herb to the same extent and value as the hauls of harder drugs sold by the major gangland Irish players in Dublin and Limerick.”
When Garda sources speak of the grow-house culture they conjure up a picture of shady and sophisticated international criminal networks growing lucrative crops of cannabis so high in quality that they have effectively redefined the Irish cannabis market in production methods, pricing and availability.
The Vietnamese-run gangs produce herbal cannabis for smoking that is three times more potent than cannabis resin. The process of harvesting the mature plants from the grow houses is simple: they are cut down and dried, pressed into slabs and packed into bags. They are then sold in wholesale quantities to Irish gangs for the domestic market or exported to gangs overseas.
Unlike cannabis resin, the cannabis herb cultivated in the grow houses does not have to be processed. It is sold on the streets in single-gram quantities for between €12 and €20. It is mostly mixed with tobacco and smoked.
“The potency of cannabis is all in the tetrahydrocannabinol content,” says a Garda source with expertise in the cannabis trade. “With cannabis resin the THC content is around 5 per cent, but with the herb from the grow houses it’s 10 to 15 per cent – much stronger. So the demand from users is high.”
Another Garda source is more blunt: “Around four or five years ago you couldn’t give this stuff away in Ireland. We had a street value on it of around €2,500 per kilo a few years ago, but that’s now as high as €14,000 per kilo.”
A typical crop found in a standard-sized house would number 400 to 500 plants. These would be capable of generating up to 20kg of cannabis, with a street value of €280,000.
In sophisticated grow houses, where growing is at maximum intensity, a single crop can be produced from sapling to harvest in eight weeks. This means a grow house producing one crop after another uninterrupted for a year could produce drugs with a street value of €1.8 million.
But most grow houses discovered by gardaí have contained a crop near maturity and a second young crop already under way. This process means a single house can produce a crop more often than once every eight weeks, driving the output of one operation close to €2.5 million a year. One grow house discovered recently had been operating for two years before it was detected.
To establish a grow house the gangs must start by finding a suitable property. They favour detached houses in middle-class suburbs, where they believe neighbours will be less nosy and Garda patrols less frequent. They also use isolated houses in rural areas, where their operations are less likely to be detected.
The recession means there is an abundance of vacant properties. Gardaí say that, because properties are harder to rent, the vetting of tenants by both landlords and letting agencies has become lax. “In some of the houses we’ve raided we’ve found very poor-quality false IDs under fake names and with references written by people with broken English,” said one Garda source.
Once a house is rented the gangs quickly go about setting up their cultivation systems. Heat lamps, with high-wattage bulbs that mimic the sun’s light and intensity, are installed. These are often suspended on metal chains that gang members fix to bedroom ceilings. Plastic sheeting is usually placed on the bedroom floors to catch any splashes from the watering systems.
Reflective sheeting, usually tin foil, is used to cover the walls. This reflects all of the light from the high-intensity lamps, generating the very warm and bright environment needed to grow the plants in an eight-week cycle. Rows and rows of potted cannabis plants are then set out in straight lines across the bedroom floors. The plants come in both female and male varieties; the gangs favour the female, because it is more productive than the slower and smaller male.
Once the pots are in place the gangs go to work in the upstairs bathroom. They fill the bath with water and pour into it a mix of industrial vitamins and minerals that will greatly aid the plants’ growth and increase the THC content. “The chemicals would be the kind of stuff legitimate people, such as firms growing crops of flowers, would use,” says one source.
Tiny tubes are then run from the bath into the bedrooms. The tubes are run over the rows of pots and punctured with small holes at the points where they pass over each plant. A timer-operated pump is then placed in the bath and connected to the network of tubes. It pumps precise quantities of vitamin-enriched water on to the plants at the right times for growing the crop as quickly as possible.
The lights shining on the crops often operate on timers. “They usually go for 16 hours a day, with eight hours of darkness because you have to let the plants rest,” says one Garda source.
If both lights and water are operated by timer the gang cultivating the crop needs to call to a grow house only a couple of times each week to check the process. “This reduces the chances of being caught and means they don’t have to pay somebody to stay there all the time,” says a source.
The blinds and curtains are kept closed in the bedrooms where plants are grown. Growers often tack blackout canvas over the drawn curtains, so the bright lights shining on the cannabis cannot be seen from outside the property.
The gangs use huge quantities of electricity but don’t pay for it. They tap into the main live power cable in a house just before it runs into the meter. Once into the live cable they run a secondary wire from it. This is run into a makeshift fuse board, which is usually mounted on an upstairs wall. To this board they fix numerous sockets, from which the lamps and irrigation pumps are run.
Gardaí say that the alternative wiring systems installed into grow houses are of an excellent standard. “The gangs bring in experts to set everything up: these are not fellas chancing their arms.”
The national grid is not sophisticated enough to pinpoint a property using industrial levels of power – as grow houses do – in dwellings where the power meter has been bypassed. Garda sources also say that the gangs’ wiring systems are sophisticated enough to mean that original power points continue to work and show a reading on the meter.
“If they put on the kettle or a light, it all still works and it still shows on the meter,” says a source. “So they can’t be detected through using far too much electricity and they won’t arouse the ESB’s suspicion by using no power at all.”
The smell generated in the intense cannabis-growing environment is very strong, so the criminals tape around the edges of all windows to keep the odour in. They then install ventilation units that suck in the house air and have filters to cleanse it. Some of the houses have a unit in every room where plants are growing. The clean air is pumped out of the property through tubes that are run up the chimney. This means the air pumped from the house will not smell foul enough to arouse suspicion, even in densely populated areas.
Sources point out that the equipment used by the gangs – lamps, chemicals, tin foil and plastic sheeting – is freely and legally available because it is all used in legal indoor cultivation, such as growing flowers for sale.
The consequences of houses being turned into growing facilities can be devastating for unsuspecting landlords. Often the watering systems leak on to floorboards and down into the plaster of the ceilings in rooms below, ruining both. Ceilings in bedrooms are also ruined by the fixing of the heavy chains from which the lights are hung.
A wiring system that has been bypassed is often classified as unsafe by the ESB, meaning that a property has to be rewired throughout. Wall surfaces, too, are often destroyed as the gangs cut into plasterboard to install their own fuse boards and hammer in cables. “A house is uninhabitable for a while after one of these things is found,” says a Garda source.
The same source says that the demise of head shops is likely to drive demand for herbal cannabis. “You would have had people who may have never bought drugs before going into the head shops because they were legal. But now that avenue for cheap legal highs is closed we think cannabis is the product they will most likely turn to. The potency of the stuff from grow houses is very high, and there’s an apathy towards cannabis across most societies anyway.”
Another source says that the recession, coupled with the financial return from grow-house operations, means it is only a matter of time before Irish gangs seek to join the Vietnamese criminals who currently dominate Irish drug cultivation.
“A lot of the Irish organised-crime gangs have bought houses that are now in negative equity, or they’ve hidden their money by buying new cars they can’t sell from the garages they’re aligned to. Other gangs have loaned money to legitimate business people who simply can’t pay it back.
“The gangs’ lack of cash means they don’t have the money to buy huge hauls of cocaine like they did before. So we expect these gangs to start going into the grow-house game to start raising money. That’ll most likely be the next development.”
Pot of gold Why the grow-house gangs like the Republic
The Vietnamese gangs operating cannabis grow houses in Ireland first started growing crops in residential dwellings in Canada in the late 1990s. In 2000 or so the grow houses began springing up across continental Europe, spreading westwards and finally reaching Britain and Northern Ireland about six years ago.
The first grow houses in the Republic appeared in Co Monaghan in the summer of 2008. Two rural properties were found to contain plants valued at €400,000, growing in a sophisticated facility run from Belfast by an Asian gang. The period since July has seen record finds of the grow houses, involving plants valued at more than €4 million.
One major attraction for those behind the operations is that they can both grow and sell the drugs in the Republic, without the need to move hauls in risky journeys across international borders.
Since last year facilities have been found in counties Dublin, Donegal, Meath, Cork, Tipperary, Carlow, Wicklow, Roscommon, Galway, Kerry, Leitrim, Cavan and Clare.
Gardaí have now put heat-seeking equipment into the cameras on the Garda helicopter so that they can detect the intense heat coming from the grow houses.
Some of the facilities in Dublin have been located in sprawling period properties set on their own land in suburbs such as Foxrock, Blackrock, Rathfarnham and Stillorgan. “They are literally where you would least expect to find them,” says a Garda source.
In most of the houses detected, the people tending the crops, known as gardeners, have been found on the properties during Garda raids. One of these has claimed that she was trafficked into the Republic and forced to work as a gardener.
Although gardaí have not encountered any serious violence linked to the grow-house gangs here, the experience of the UK, where gangs have been operating for much longer, suggests that they are major gangland entities.
A report by the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers found that the gangs are involved in gunrunning, extortion, human trafficking (including child trafficking), prostitution, money laundering, tobacco smuggling and kidnapping.
Many gangs in the UK set booby traps in their grow houses, aimed at electrocuting anyone who tries to break in to steal their crop.