South-East Asian drug syndicates are increasingly turning Perth rental properties into hydroponic cannabis farms, with police finding two a week on average since January last year.
Landlords are being left with big repair bills after criminals effectively gut properties to grow the drugs and police say their illegal rewiring creates fire traps that endanger neighbouring residents.
An organised crime squad-led inquiry was launched in June to target cannabis rackets after detectives found 66 so-called “grow houses” across Perth in the first six months of last year.
Since then, at least $10 million worth of potent marijuana crops have been found at another 77 properties.
Assistant Commissioner Gary Budge said 8818 plants, 454kg of harvested cannabis head and $246,000 cash were seized in the 77 raids.
At one property in the Peel district of Oldbury, police found 1217 cannabis plants in a greenhouse, 198kg of drying cannabis head and about $10,500 cash. A 26-year-old NSW man was charged over the haul.
Since June, 41 people have been hit with 67 charges of cultivating cannabis or possessing drugs with intent to sell or supply, as well as 49 other charges including unlawful possession of cash and stealing electricity.
Western Power estimates about $11.3 million worth of power has been stolen since January last year from the 143 properties raided.
Police claim there are links among the WA cases as well as to syndicates in the Eastern States.
“Certainly we believe there has been a move over to here (by criminals) because of the pressure being applied by police in Victoria,” Mr Budge said.
“Obviously we’ll continue to apply the pressure here.”
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in Australia and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission says organised crime groups are increasingly setting up multiple crop houses to generate funds quickly and reinvest them into importing methamphetamines.
Mr Budge said cannabis use was also linked to other crimes because many users committed burglaries or thefts to fund their habits.
He urged the public to call police if they suspected a property was being used to grow drugs.
Warning signs could include people bringing in lots of equipment such as lights, plastic pots, irrigation piping and fertiliser, unusual electrical cables in the yard, infrequent visitors, window blinds always closed and the hum of extractor fans.
Mr Budge said landlords could help prevent cases by using property managers or doing stricter checks on tenants.
“Generally the criminals are targeting rentals advertised privately and making landlords offers that are too good to be true — paying cash well in advance but also requesting no property inspections,” he said.
Police also want to warn foreigners of the consequences of working as “crop-sitters”, with 21 on student visas and 14 unlawful non-Australian citizens among those charged. Mr Budge said foreign citizens were put before the courts and deported only after serving any jail terms.
“We apply for criminal justice visas to allow them to remain in Australia while they face charges … because there are consequences for the behaviour,” Mr Budge said.
A charge of cultivating cannabis carries a potential sentence of 10 years jail.
Some of those arrested in WA are the alleged organisers and Mr Budge said WA Police was working with other agencies to follow the money trails.
Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000