An alarming rise in the number of so-called cannabis farms appearing in the heart of the North Manchester community has led to an unprecedented wave of drug use among young Jews.
Police have discovered hundreds of cannabis plants growing inside a semi-detached house in Prestwich, the latest of dozens in the area and nearby Whitefield.
In the past two years, nine suchfarms have been discovered in Prestwich, mainly around the religious area of Kings Road, and eight in Whitefield. Neighbours are rarely aware of the activities of the foreign drug gangs who run them.
The danger they pose to the community is two-fold. Apart from the drugs, dealers pose another risk by bypassing electricity meters to draw power undetected from the national-grid.
The haphazard trails of grey cable can overload and start an electrical fire.
The culture of marijuana use is now highly prevalent among 12 to 18 year-old Jewish youths in the area. With so many farms, young Jews have been telling the JC how easy the drug is to come by, when and where they want it.
One 18-year-old former King David High School student from Prestwich, admits that parents would be shocked by the young age of the smokers and the places that they go to.
“The people in sixth-forms will go to parks in Whitefield like the Dobin, off Park Lane, and Philips Park. The dirt track next to Philips Park Jewish cemetery is another place. Prestwich kids go to Heathlands Jewish Care home’s car park — it’s really nice because you can watch the rabbits.”
The farms, she said, provide easy outlets for religious teens, who did not go to clubs.
Police say these farms sell drugs to mainstream dealers who pass them on to small-time dealers who then arrange to meet clients privately.
The girl said that, from what she had seen, at least 60 per cent of Jewish sixth-form age teenagers are already smoking on a regular basis, but the proportion might be closer to 80 per cent. Her estimate is consistent with those of the charity, Drugsline.
“They don’t want to drink and drive, so they’d rather smoke. We’ve got used to sitting in cars in pyjamas and smoking. You don’t need to get dressed or do your hair. You see people afterwards at Prestwich Tesco buying food at 1am with their eyes all red,” she said.
She and other young people I spoke to said that many started smoking cannabis at 15 as a fun irregular pastime, leading to weekly or daily use by the age of 16.
Twelve-year-olds are now being introduced to smoking substances by the increasing popularity of Arabian smoking pipes, commonly known as nargila.
She added: “It’s generally young people who smoke. Even the goody-two-shoes eventually think, ‘What the hell, I’m on my year out or in uni, why not?’, and some, from more traditional families, say, ‘I can’t really be seen in a bar or a club, but no one’s going to see me smoke weed’.
“I have known some to have started to become curious around the age 13, around the barmitzvah period,” an 18-year-old girl from Whitefield told me.
I spoke to her via the social networking website, Facebook, and agreed to withhold her name. She said that smoking cannabis has become a popular alternative to alcohol.
“It’s a more appealing feeling than going out drinking: it costs less, you do it in the comfort of your own home and you don’t feel terrible the next morning. If you want it bad enough you can pretty much get it anytime in Manchester.”
One local dealer, Joshua Thompson, was well known locally as Josh Josh. Although non-Jewish, he got to know Jewish youngsters and would talk to them about Jewish festivals.
Thompson, 18, killed his girlfriend with a sawn-off shotgun at her home in Salford, before taking his own life in June 2006.
Jason, from Whitefield, was a heavy cannabis user while a pupil of Manchester Grammar School. He gave up after becoming depressed, and now aged 24, he works as a trainee accountant. He is unsurprised by the increased use of cannabis, blaming it on the lack of activities for young Jewish people.
“There’s little to do for Jewish kids and nowhere to go. When my friends and I got moved on by police we used to ask them what they expected us to do. Jewish youths tend to loiter around particular parks.”
Some North Manchester farms have a turnover of more than £100,000 for a relatively small crop of 150 mature plants. Four hundred such plants were found in July in a house on Park Road, a road of large semi-detached and detached houses largely populated by Jewish families.
More recently, on November 11 police raided a house in Laburnum Grove, Prestwich, and seized 100 plants with an estimated street value of £65,000. Fifty plants were seized from nearby Salisbury Drive on December 8 and another raid followed a day later in New Road, Whitefield.
Police are now calling on members of the public to spot the tale-tale signs of a cannabis farm and inform them of anything suspicious.
Prestwich community officer, PC Chris Grayshon, says the signs can be subtle.
“If people keep their eyes open they will spot something is wrong. The signs to look out for are people with large bags coming in and out at strange times of the night, no one coming in to the house for days on end, and really heavy, thick drapes at the windows — which are never opened.”
PC Andy Wright, from the local policing unit at Prestwich, says police are keen to stop the risk of cannabis farms catching fire.
“The danger of fire is outstanding. That’s our major issue. Most properties are semis or terraced. If one goes up in flames, it’s putting families at risk. This is more of a public safety issue.”
The police say the prevalence of the cannabis farms in Jewish neighbourhoods is for two reasons: the high number of reasonably-sized rental properties available in the area.
“The other is that Prestwich has many cul-de-sacs, in which the farmers feel more confident that they can tuck their production away out of the public eye.
His colleague, PC Dominic Carroll, said: “What usually happens is that they rent large properties on a short-term lease, and it just so happens that due to the current difficulties in the housing market, there is a glut of these types of properties in the Prestwich area at the moment.”
Karen Phillips, chief executive of the leading welfare charity, the Fed, says her organisation is aware of a drug problem, but that no Manchester Jewish organisation is currently geared up to deal with it.
“We hear via young people that there is a real problem in local schools. We also know from parents who worry about the vulnerability of their children to the influences of drugs.
“It’s not something we are working directly with at the moment, but we are intending to do a drug awareness event for young people jointly with Maccabi.
“Ultimately, we want young people to feel comfortable to talk with an organisation who specialises in drug counselling.”
Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin: I would be very surprised if they were just dabbling in cannabis
The widespread use of cannabis in Manchester is in keeping with other areas where drugs are a problem, according to Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin, director of the London-based drugs crisis charity Drugsline.
“The increase in the popularity of cannabis makes a statistic such as 60 per cent of 15-year-olds in Manchester sound certainly right. I would be very surprised if they were dabbling in just cannabis, which normally starts at a younger age now — pre-barmitzvah or just afterwards.
“If cannabis farms are being created it’s because there is a market place in the area. The police can’t really cope, because if they close down one farm, another will open just around the corner. Our only response is to try to minimise people’s need for the drug.
“There are a number of key pieces of advice for parents. The first thing is to make sure all channels of communication with their children are open, and children feel comfortable about talking if there is a problem. Parents should also be aware of strange symptoms as well — fatigue, unusual eating habits, fidgetiness and a change of friends are often good indicators of drug use.”
The possibility of satellite Drugsline centres outside London is being researched, says Rabbi Sufrin. Currently, offering training to communities is their best strategy.
“Drugsline is maintaining links with communities outside London and are fully committed and prepared to train others. We can be actively involved in all levels of a community from its welfare organisations to individual families, but are limited in what we can do due to the growth factor of cannabis. It’s something that’s not going away, so we need to get people trained to deal with it.”