AN illegal immigrant claims he was left with little choice but to tend a large cannabis grow in a rented property after losing a tyre factory job, at the outset of the coronavirus crisis.

Albanian national Ardian Topollaj knew what he was doing was illegal, but felt he had no option when taken to the address in Wheatley Hill, where the plant growth was already underway, in May.

Durham Crown Court heard when police entered the property, in Wingate Lane, on May 27, plants were found in five rooms over two floors.

Jane Waugh, prosecuting, said it appeared a “professional” grow, aided by almost £18,000 worth of heating and lighting equipment, with a free power supply as the electricity meter was bypassed.

In all, 96 plants at a mature stage of growth and 300 more immature plants were recovered, with the potential to raise up to £250,000, with a successful yield.

Martin Scarborough, mitigating, said Topollaj came to this country, illegally, as a 19-year-old,and was in the UK for seven-and-a-half months at the time of the police raid.

He worked on a building site in London and then at a tyre factory in Sheffield, until it closed earlier in the year.

“It left him out of work and homeless and when he was offered work in this area by an Albanian man, he believed it involved the moving of furniture and he would have a roof over his head.

“The people who brought him told him ‘something would happen’ if he didn’t tend the cannabis farm.

“He was told there was cctv in the house which would monitor his movements and so he got on with it, tending the plants for about two weeks before his arrest.

“It’s my submission he was engaged through pressure or intimidation and was exploited as a young man because he was homeless,” added Mr Scarborough.

But the court heard an application to the Home Office’s National Referral Mechanism on the basis that he was a victim of modern day slavery was rejected.

Following rejection of the application Topollaj, now 20, who previously denied being concerned in the production of cannabis, changed his plea to guilty.

Jailing him for 28-months, Judge Ray Singh said he played a role in the production of a potentially lucrative cannabis farm set up.

He told Topollaj that he would serve 14 months in custody and would then, most likely, face deportation.