AN illegal immigrant who worked on a cannabis farm in a desperate attempt to pay off the debt to people who smuggled him into the country has been jailed.

Albanian Elson Balla was brought to the UK in December last and following a tip-off from local residents he was arrested working inside a cannabis farm in Stockton in February.

Cleveland Police carried out a search of the property and recovered almost 100 plants from the 'professional set-up', Teesside Crown Court heard.

Nigel Soppitt, prosecuting, said the value of the 'skunk cannabis' would have been in the region of £78,000 if sold on the streets.

The court heard how people had raised concerns about the strong smell and constant humming noise coming out of the property.

Mr Soppitt said: "The defendant was alone in the address and it is noteworthy that keys were in the front and back door meaning he defendant could come and go as he wishes.

"Inside the property was found a well managed and professionally set-up cannabis growth. On the ground floor there was 48 plants and upstairs there was 46 plants with a calculated growth of 5kg of skunk cannabis.

"The wholesale value would be about £28,000 with a street value of £78,000."

Mr Soppitt said the electricity had been bypassed in a professional job, there was insulation, electric fans and an irrigation system in place.

"When he was arrested and interviewed he made no comment but had a prepared statement indicating he entered the UK in December 2020 and did this to pay the money back to those who brought him in."

The 26-year-old, of Autumn Grove, Stockton, pleaded guilty to being involved in the production of cannabis.

Ismael Uddin, in mitigation, said his client had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity.

He said: "It was to pay off his debts that he had incurred for coming into the country when he had no right to be here. This was a criminal enterprise and my client does not speak English or have any qualifications to help him get gainful employment.

"There was never any realistic prospect of my client gaining employment or being legally able to pay back the vast sum of money he owed the people who helped him enter the UK and he was encouraged to participate to pay off his debts."

Judge Timothy Stead jailed Balla for ten months and ordered that all the drugs and equipment to be seized and destroyed.

"You took part as a gardener in an extensive cannabis growing house, this could have produced about 5kg of skunk cannabis," he said.

"I give you full credit because you pleaded guilty at the first reasonable opportunity and therefore I give you a ten-month sentence.

"You will serve five-months of your sentence but I do not know whether you will be released or not due to your immigration status."