Cannabis growers in Britain are now producing such large quantities of the drug that it is being exported.
One hundred kilos of cannabis have been seized by customs officials at British ports in the past three years and experts say that was a fraction of the total illicit trade.
Figures obtained by The Sunday Times reveal that 220 seizures of "outbound" cannabis were made between 2008-9 and 2010-11. The rise in exports follows a rapid increase in the number of factories producing the drug across the country. Nearly 7,000 cannabis factories containing 750,000 plants with an estimated yield valued at £85m were discovered by police in 2009-10, more than double the figure of two years earlier.
An estimated 2m people in Britain smoke cannabis and the UK market has become dominated by highly potent "skunk", a type of herbal cannabis. The drug commands a premium, causing the average price nearly to double in the past five years.
However, the rewards on offer have led to huge over-supply in parts of the country. This has forced some criminals to seek markets overseas.
The illicit industry, much of it run by Chinese and Vietnamese gangs, is also spreading to suburbia with middle-class professionals tempted by the offer of thousands of pounds from drug dealers to rent rooms and convert them into mini-farms. Police are using helicopters with thermal-imaging cameras to detect the "glow" from powerful heat lamps used to grow the plants hydroponically.
Graeme Pearson, the former head of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency and now a member of the Scottish parliament, said: "Ten years ago we wouldn't have seen any cannabis being exported but now we see a new chapter has opened - the UK has become a drugs exporter."
The Home Office said nearly 25 tons of cannabis were seized last year. "Our message is clear. Cannabis is a harmful drug that should not be taken and its smuggling is often linked to serious organized crime," it said.
Written by Michael Howie for The Sunday Times, page 11.
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