TWO Albanians involved in the harvesting of plants from a massive cannabis farm unearthed in central Whitehaven near the town police station have each been jailed for more than three years.
Officers became aware of the illegal drug factory inside the former post office building, on Lowther Street, in the early hours of May 24, after being alerted to a suspicious white van parked in the area. The driver, 28-year-old Xhona Leka was spoken to, ran off but was caught running along the A66, and the van was found to be full of freshly cut cannabis plants.
A total of 772 mature cannabis plants and 600 seedlings made up the huge cannabis farm which had a sophisticated electrical and air filtration systems and was set across three floors of the premises and 30 different rooms. A partner-in-crime, 40-year-old Gjergi Braculla, was found asleep inside a nearby Nissan vehicle in which Albanian documents, a voltmeter and large fuses were also discovered.
Carlisle Crown Court heard the power supply to the building had been cut the previous day because of problems with the grid. And prosecutor Robert Wyn Jones said: “It is the Crown’s case the two defendants were harvesting the crop before it died.”
Although the prosecution initially alleged the cannabis farm was a “million pound enterprise” run by an organised crime gang, the street value of the illicit haul was said this afternoon to be potentially worth £542,000.
When initially quizzed, Leka claimed to be a painter and decorator, while his accomplice pretended to be in the town sightseeing. It emerged both had lost construction jobs in southern of England before becoming involved in the illegal enterprise in a desperate bid to support themselves and their families.
Leka, of The Dene, Wembley, North London, and Braculla, of Archduke Place, New Maldon, Kingston upon Thames, both pleaded guilty to producing cannabis, while Leka further admitted possessing the class B drug with intent to supply.
Recorder Jeremy Lasker jailed the pair for 40 months each. “Someone had spent considerably effort in setting up a sophisticated farm. The two of you clearly had a significant role to play,” said the judge. “By virtue of good police work, really, this came to light.”
Detective Chief Inspector Matt Scott, speaking after the sentencing, said: “This was a very professional set-up, with no outward signs that anything untoward was going on.
“The location in the town itself meant they were almost hiding in plain sight.
“But good proactive policing led to this discovery, in that a single officer saw something suspicious and acted on it immediately.
“We welcome the sentences handed out today and hope anyone tempted to become involved in such a criminal enterprise takes note.
“Our investigations into drugs crime relies on intelligence and information and we would urge anyone who has seen or knows of anything suspicious to contact us.”
Cumbria might be a largely rural county that is a safe place to live, work and visit.
But this does not mean it is immune to organised crime – and its very rural and quiet nature could make it an attractive place to set up a cannabis farm.
Officers are calling for the public to play their part and report anything suspicious.
DI Scott added: “People should be under no illusion that serious and organised crime groups operate in Cumbria.
“It is these groups who are behind the industrial levels of cannabis growth grown in the sort of places we are targeting.
“We appreciate every bit of information we get from the public.
“We have officers and PCSOs out-and-about engaging with the community every day, but we need you to tell us what is happening in your neighbourhoods.
“In particular we want to appeal to business owners and their staff to tell us if they see anything unusual near where they are working, as cannabis farms can be set up in places such as industrial units.
“Please come forward with information – everything will be reviewed and acted upon accordingly.”
Signs to watch out for include:
- Strong, sickly smells coming from properties
- Properties where the windows are constantly covered
- Excessive security around properties, such as CCTV
- High levels of unusual condensation on windows
- Lots of visitors – and at unsociable hours
- Bright lights day and night
- Constant buzz of ventilation
DI Scott, speaking about the issue in general, said: “Cannabis farms are usually run as a purely commercial entity to make money for organised crime groups through illegal means.
“Criminals are using more inventive ways to conceal cannabis grows – not just in rooms, but in the back of shops and in industrial settings where people go to work every day.
“These are illegal operations and, as such, are not subject to the usual rules that legitimate businesses follow to protect property and people.
“Cannabis farms are very dangerous places and pose a serious risk of fire.
“Often the electricity meter has been bypassed – and seriously overloaded electrical circuits run close to water-filled pipes.
“Plants grown upstairs in a building can also cause floorboards to rot, presenting the danger of collapse.
“Every cannabis farm we destroy helps prevent a vicious circle.
“The plants won’t end up as street deals, the profits won’t go on to fund other crime and they won’t ruin lives or pollute our communities.”