POLICE recovered a huge haul of cannabis plants with a street value of more than £80,000 from a warehouse in the grounds of Durham Tees Valley Airport that had been converted by Vietnamese criminal gangs.

Teesside Crown Court heard that 1.43kg of the drug was ready to be yielded from the cannabis farm which was described by prosecutors as a “large scale enterprise”.

Diem Nguyen was today (June 2) jailed for 16 months after he was illegally smuggled into the UK from Vietnam in order to operate the farm.

The 24-year-old, who admitted producing a class B drug, had been recruited by shadowy criminal figures in his homeland in order that he could help his family pay off a large debt they owed and feared they could be hurt if he did not comply.

The discovery of the farm – one of the biggest seen in the area in recent years - highlights the continued problem of young men from Vietnam and the Far East being exploited and trafficked into the UK by those seeking to profit from the cannabis trade.

Prosecuting, Harry Hadfield said suspicion was raised when rental payments were not kept up on the warehouse/office property, Tower House, based on an industrial estate near the airport and it was discovered that documentation used to secure it were false.

The owner found locks had been changed and the downstairs windows painted over. There was also a strong smell of cannabis.

He said police went to the property on December 3 last year and found two large rooms containing 260 mature plants, a crop that if harvested would fetch £81,712 on the street. There were also 175 cannabis seedlings ready to replace the harvested crop.

All the “usual paraphernalia” associated with cannabis farms was found, including heat lamps and water irrigation systems.

Mr Hadfield said: “This was a certainly a large enterprise. A raft of fingerprints were found within the building and the electricity supply had been diverted.

“The defendant said he had been given a mobile phone to contact the people that had brought him here. He was involved in feeding the plants and given instructions.”

The court heard how there were beds and toilet facilities and although Nguyen had been given a key to come and go, he did not do so and lived on the premises with another man. The other individual was also charged, but the case against him later discontinued.

Kieran Rainey, mitigating, said: “This is someone who has been trafficked into the country to do this particular role and there has been an element of exploitation taking place.”

He said Nguyen, who required an interpreter in court, had been told that growing cannabis was not regarded as a serious offence in the UK and if discovered the police could simply be bribed to “go away”.

Recorder Felicity Davies said Nguyen’s role was aggravated by his obvious awareness of the extensive nature of the enterprise.

Jailing him for 16 months, she said: “It needs to be made clear to those who come to this country from abroad that growing of cannabis on a large scale is regarded as very serious criminal behaviour and those who do so will receive prison sentences.”