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An explosion in the amount of cannabis grown in people's homes has alarmed senior police officers, with some forces reporting a sixfold increase in seizures. Home-grown cannabis now accounts for more than half of all consumption in the UK.
While cultivating cannabis is illegal, it is not against the law to buy seeds and growing equipment and business is booming. 'There's no doubt that the market for home-grown has completely exploded,' says Mark Evans, director of internet-based retailer everyonedoesit.com.
'We're selling at least 200 packets of seeds each week. Some of it is down to the reclassification - there's a lot of confusion out there, and some people think it's now legal. The other factor is the increased availability of hydroponic equipment which enables you to grow plants indoors.'
Small-scale kits cost about ?350, while a packet of 10 'mid-range' seeds is around ?65. A typical user would expect to recoup this with the first crop. The number of outlets selling seeds and paraphernalia has gone from 50, five years ago, to more than 2,000.
In the past month officers from the Metropolitan Police seized more than 10,000 cannabis plants. Figures to be released next month are expected to show that the total amount of herbal cannabis seized in the past year - which includes home-grown plants - has nearly doubled to 950,000 kilos.
Forces around the country have noticed a similar trend. Police in Northern Ireland seized more than 1,200 cannabis plants in the past year compared with 202 the year before. In Scotland the Tayside force's seizure rate has gone up sixfold. The independent drug advice group Drugscope says the proportion of home-grown cannabis being consumed now accounts for half the total market.
The dramatic increase comes as the government contemplates a U-turn on the reclassification of cannabis, which was scaled back from class B to class C last year. The Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs is debating whether cannabis containing high levels of the active ingredient THC should attract higher penalties. Domestic plants often have a significantly higher content.
Regular users are sceptical of the review. 'The main reason people grow their own cannabis is that they want to know what they are smoking and because they want to avoid associating with criminals,' says Howard Green, who grows the drug for his own use, passing on the surplus to those who use it to alleviate the symptoms of MS and other conditions.
'It's not always about having the strongest product available. Sometimes you feel like a pint of beer and sometimes you want a glass of brandy. A change in the law will make no difference. If people want to take drugs, they don't care what class they are.'
While much of the increase in seizures is due to the arrest of people growing a small number of plants for personal use, there has also been an explosion in the number of large criminal enterprises.
'We're not talking about a few hippies growing a bit of pot,' says Detective Inspector Dave McKelvey, who led raids on several London cannabis 'farms' this month. 'These are organised criminals prepared to invest money in cultivation on a commercial scale for big profits.'
The raids uncovered 10 houses converted into cannabis factories, each containing up to 2,000 plants. Sophisticated lighting and watering systems meant a new crop could be produced every eight weeks. Gangs will invest up to ?50,000 per property to establish a growing operation. Increased competition has also raised the spectre of gangland violence.
In January the body of a Vietnamese national, Khang Tho Nguyen, was discovered in a house in Alperton, north London. The 41-year-old had been stabbed in the neck. The entire upstairs of the rented property where his body was found had been adapted to grow large numbers of cannabis plants. His killers remain at large.
Police have vowed to continue the crackdown on growers, but in future those who are caught may face more lenient sentences. Last week the Court of Appeal halved the sentence of 33-year-old cannabis user Matthew Herridge from 12 months to six months. Herridge, who was caught with 52 plants, successfully argued that the entire crop was for his own personal use and that he was not a dealer.