Like the highwaymen of the last century, the streets of the United Kingdom have roaming bandits, but they’re not looking to burgle just anyone. These thieves are using heat-vision outfitted drones to suss out residences they suspect may have illegal grow operations under their roofs. If they find windows or chimneys emitting an unusual amount of heat, they’ll come to the conclusion that weed is being grown there, and raid the grower’s stash.
The practice is touched upon in the newest episode of Vice’s High Society on UK cannabis culture (which between weed growin’ grannies and a rapper named Black the Ripper whose claim to fame is smoking in public feels uncannily like the drugs episode of Brass Eye). In the episode, host Matt Shea rides shotgun to two art students who use their learned programming skills to plunder pot.
“I’m using a heat-seeking camera to find crops,” says one of the thieves, “so that I can just go in, basically, when the crops are ready. Take the door off, bag the plants up as they are, and that’s it we’re out of there.”
The thieves tell Shea that despite what you may think, they haven’t experienced much violence from their heists. That most grow ops would prefer not to make noise. Their biggest threat is actually from police officers, who they suspect are using similar tech, and are essentially their competition. This is becoming a tortoise and the hare race between smokers and coppers to see who will hit first.
Not every gang of thieves will use brute force or Ocean’s 11 shenanigans to sneak their way into cannabis farms. According to Vice’s Motherboard, some of these heat-seeking drone robbers prefer to extort their victims, locating their marks and then threatening to blow their cover to authorities.
“I bought my first drone for a few hundred quid,” said one thief, “learnt how to fly it over wasteland and fitted a wifi camera to it so I could look into people’s windows. However, I noticed police helicopters used thermal imaging cameras to find cannabis farms because of the heat the hydroponic lights give off, so I bought a second hand heat-seeking camera online and hooked it up to my iPad.”
While police officers have seemingly relaxed their enforcement over cannabis, marijuana remains illegal in the UK. Despite rapid legalization happening abroad, there hasn’t been much movement in the British parliament to decriminalize marijuana. While the average growers and dealers of the country aren’t too intimidated by authorities, the use of marijuana is still a game of risk and reward.
Cannabis thieves outfitted with drones probably shouldn’t concern the average grow op either. A seemingly niche kind of dodger, they’re more interesting to know about than to be concerned about, but these tech-savvy bandits may also be a preview of the wild world to come.
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