Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

London has many buildings serving unexpected roles. One of the most familiar concealed unusual activity behind its reflective, strengthened windows. Next time a television news reporter stands in front of the revolving New Scotland Yard sign look carefully over his shoulder and recognise a multi-storey greenhouse. Until forensic scientists adopted the technique of vacuum sealing the officers of Scotland Yard’s Drug Squad took pride in preserving the evidence. Dozens of cannabis plants had to be nurtured from the time of seizure until the court appearance and there was strong competition between the different drug squad teams.

The combination of double-glazing, air conditioning and central heating proved the perfect environment for competitive horticulture. At subsequent court appearances surprised defendants were torn between admiration for the beautiful plants and shock at the growth in evidence. The plants responded well to liquid fertiliser, water sprays and verbal encouragement. A whole new jargon arrived so that spraying for greenfly became “tampering with the evidence”, when teams went to search greenhouses they went to “dig up evidence” and puns based on “planting” were too numerous to mention.

It has to be recorded that our permissive, tolerant, free love society was desperately ineffective at growing decent plants. Most specimens, had they been children, would have been taken into care at an early stage of their lives. Perhaps it was the growing conditions of secrecy, their lack of sunshine and open air or perhaps the laid back approach of the would-be gardeners, but they were very unimpressive. It was almost a merciful release from barren captivity when they came into preventive detention.

One north London Magistrate’s Court is fortuitously near a garden centre and it became traditional to wait for return transport on the pavement nearby, pausing only to change the exhibit label for a “sold” sign. The officers were very aware of the change in customers entering the centre after examination of the “purchase”. The would-be horticulturalists spent time fruitlessly searching the shrub and plant beds.

The large drug squad office was frequently used as a function room when farewell speeches and gifts were lavished on innocently departing senior officers. Resplendently decorated in the style of a “harvest festival” the room provided a contrasting green backdrop to the regular formal leaving photographs. Many children can admire photographs of parental retirements knowingly impressed by the cannabis plants adorning the scene.

The internal competitions proved fairly satisfactory but the teams could hardly ask for public acclaim – until the announcement of the horticultural show.

Each year the Metropolitan Police Civil Staff (COMETS) held a horticultural show within New Scotland Yard and the Drug Squad vowed to enter an appropriate plant. One plant stood out above all others. Now four feet high in its half oil drum it had obviously been very much loved by its owner. The container had been psychedelically painted by an artist high on acid and the plant was cared for by the miniature garden gnomes gathered around its roots. Equipped with spades, forks and wheelbarrows they had clearly helped with its strong growth.

Entering horticultural shows is not a simple matter. The catalogue identifies varied classes clearly designed to confuse. The options were examined and one appeared to be perfect for the plant – unhesitatingly it entered as a “Single Pot Plant”.

In deference to its more serious role in life the plant was guarded by squad officers until the judging. Its presentation attracted many admirers, it was impossible not to notice it. The guest judge, generally to be seen on the T V screens, moved along the row of exhibits. The tension mounted as he moved past gentle lilies and ferns towards the dynamic cannabis plant.

Muttering words indecipherable to his audience he jotted comments on his clipboard about the various plants laid out before him. He examined the specimen in the very bright pot. He intoned “Cannabis sativa – disqualified – wrong class – its a vegetable!” Exit quietly insulted plant and discouraged drug squad officers.

The squad never knew if it was the disqualification that caused a change in the system or whether it was the flights of blackfly throughout the Yard’s air conditioning. Within weeks plants taken to the Lambeth Laboratory were met at reception by a scientist, a leaf or two were examined, the plant was photographed and it was placed in a plastic bag and vacuum sealed.

The squad did fight a rearguard action by seizing almost a ton of plants from a greenhouse near Heathrow airport. These were delivered in bulk to the laboratory with a challenge to “get them into a plastic bag!” Science prevailed and a supplementary secure warehouse was added to the laboratory services to accept large seizures. Science has also progressed with the initial growers as hydroponics and “natural” electric lighting were added to the horticulturalists equipment.

Today’s cannabis plants are a contrasting credit to commitment, to education and the various “net” guides.

Vacuum sealing may well be more efficient, may well retain the evidence in its true seized state but it lacks heart and personal involvement. It simply fails to give the air conditioning that added lift.