A BUSINESSMAN has described the dramatic moment police officers “sniffed out” a large cannabis farm in a vacant town centre coffee shop, before chasing suspects through the streets.

Durham Police officers discovered about 500 cannabis plants growing over three floors after breaking their way into Francesca’s Coffee Shop in Front Street, Chester-le-Street, on Saturday. Three men were arrested.

Paul Mitchison, director of the Computer Centre, said: “A police officer I knew came into the shop to get a free face mask, which he knew I was giving away.

“He just happened to say “by there’s a very strong smell outside”. It was the smell of cannabis, which I hadn’t noticed before.

“He and his colleagues had a look around, first through the windows of the Black Horse pub.

“The next thing there was a lot of shouting as an officer kicked down the door at the alleyway of the pub. He running down there with a female officer who came out and ran down the other way.

“Then two lads jumped over the wall of the pub car park after running through the beer garden. They must have heard something and ran off. But the cops ran them down and caught them.”

He added: “Then another guy was brought out in handcuffs. The next thing there were loads of police coming flying up and down the street.”

Mr Mitchison said officers cut the lock off the gate of Francesca’s and used a hammer to force their way in.

He said: “I spoke to some of the police and apparently there was three floors full of cannabis.

“They were there for hours taking photographs. About five vehicles from Northern Power Grid turned up too. When I came in on Sunday there were still police cars outside."

Mr Mitchison said the premises used to be Da Vinci's restaurant, before it was taken over and called Francesca's. It has been vacant for more than a year.

A Durham Police spokesperson said: “While on routine patrol, officers noticed a pungent smell coming from a premises on Front Street, Chester-le-Street shortly before 2pm on Saturday. Officers forced entry and found over 200 cannabis plants.

“Three men aged, 27, 32 and 33 were arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the production of cannabis and have since been released under investigation. The plants were seized and enquires are ongoing."

Durham Road Policing Unit tweeted: “Officers from A Relief discovered a substantial cannabis grow in the Chester-le-Street area this weekend. Around 500 cannabis plants have been seized, preventing them being sold on the streets of County Durham and Darlington.”