Nottingham cannabis factory worth millions found because of Grenfell Tower fire disaster

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Seven Vietnamese men worked at a £3.5million cannabis factory in a historic city mill - which was only discovered because of safety concerns highlighted by the Grenfell Tower fire disaster.

The building's owner decided to carry out safety checks on four-storey Palmerston House on Mount Street. But he was unable to enter because a crime gang had blocked the stairs and controlled the lift.

After the Vietnamese team escaped across nearby roofs, police broke in to find 4,049 cannabis plants. That led to jail terms of five years six months for two Bradford brothers who helped set up the operation.

QC Gregory Dickinson, Nottingham's most senior judge, said they were "in it for the long term to produce industrial quantities of the drug."

Sitting at the Crown Court, he said: "It is necessary to pause and consider that. This cannabis would be sold in the city, in this county and beyond.

"Barely a week goes by where this court and others deal with the effects of the use of cannabis, barely a week where I read a report of some young defendant who suffers from anxiety, depression, insomnia or paranoia because of psychotic substances.

"High strength cannabis is having a profound effect on the mental health of many people and that is hugely disturbing. It should be a matter of great concern."

Cannabis plants found in Palmerston House on Mount Street, Nottingham.

He had been told that the former paper mill had been partly used as an educational centre. In 2016, the tenant was approached by four men who said they had a contract to deliver goods for the online store Amazon.

Gordon Aspden, prosecuting, described this as a "cover story" by men keen to bring "a drug trafficking business to the East Midlands." They took the top two floors and made access difficult by building a breeze block wall across a stairwell.

They had even removed some steps from the fire escape to deter anyone who tried to enter from the outside.

They had the keys to the lift which ran from the basement and also controlled its power supply. They used £150,000 worth of energy after the electricity meter was bypassed.

"To get materials into the building, there was a roller shutter in the basement through which lorries could have been brought," said Mr Aspden. As well as the plants, the gang installed air ducts to get rid of the smell of the crop.

If the crop had hit the streets, it could have raised between £1million and £3.5million if marketed in small amounts. The wholesale figure would have been less.

"This was nipped in the bud but clearly those involved were there for the long haul," said Mr Aspden.

It came to light when the landowner decided to check the premises after the Grenfell Tower tragedy after contacting his insurers. He found an internal staircase had been bricked up and suspected squatters when he heard noises upstairs.

The owner returned with two men and a sledgehammer who tried to break down the wall. The Vietnamese men - probably thinking it was the police - climbed across a flat roof and left.

Mr Aspden said a teenage boy had indicated threats had been made by the team who worked in the cannabis factory.

"When they refused to do it, they were told someone's head was pushed under water," said Mr Aspden. Initially charges had been laid under the Modern Slavery Act but the prosecution decided not to continue with these.

Although the Vietnamese men worked, slept and cooked meals in the mill, they were able to leave to buy food, the judge was told.

Mohammed Anwar, 33, and Mohammed Imran, 38, both of St George's Rise, Bradford pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce cannabis between June 1 and August 6 last year.

Mohammed Anwar, 33, and Mohammed Imran, 38, both of St George's Rise, Bradford

Balraj Bhatia, for Imran, told the judge: "He was reluctant to get involved.

"It is plain he was not the architect, not the planner and not the financier. There is no evidence at all he was involved in the financing or the capital outlay."

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He said the father-of-three worked as a builder and used those skills free for the community. As well as refurbishing a mosque, he did the same voluntary work for a Baptist church.

Ranjit Lallie, for Anwar, said that he allowed his bank account to be used by a Polish man to deposit £5,000. He had made no money from the factory because there had been no harvest.

Anwar had also contributed to his community as a semi-professional footballer who coached young players in Leeds and Bradford.

Mr Lallie added: "He has got good qualities. He made a grave mistake here."

The court was told that two other men are being sought.