Around £200m worth of electricity is being stolen every year to run illegal cannabis farms across the UK, according to research released today.

Phil Butler, co-director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Cybercrime and Computer Security, said electricity costs associated with even a small-scale cannabis farm were “astronomical”. To get around this, farmers were “abstracting” – or siphoning - electricity from the main source, he said, often by digging outside their houses to illegally hook up with the main supply.

“Ultimately that means higher bills for law-abiding consumers,” he added.

Mr Butler’s team is now joining forces with other organisations to investigate ways in which information technology can be used to crack down on cannabis farms. He says there is potential to use smart meters which could identify when unusually high volumes of electricity were being withdrawn from the grid, and trace the spikes back to the illegal grow-sites.

The issue is to be discussed today at a conference in Newcastle attended by representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers, energy companies and the Home Office.

Police have reported a boom in illegal cultivation of the class B drug, with more than 7,800 clandestine farms detected in the past year – more than double the number found four years ago. There is also growing evidence that organised crime groups are becoming involved in the trade.

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