Police found 870 cannabis plants in the flowering stage of cultivation in a “significant”, near industrial-scale, domestic cannabis farm operation, a court heard.

The plants, on yield, were said to be capable of fetching anything up to £735,000 if sold in street deals, Durham Crown Court was told.

All were found in two rooms of a terraced house in Ferryhill raided by officers, acting on “intelligence” on January 15 this year, following reports the property was suspected of being used for the growth of cannabis.

The court was told when police attended, the occupant of the end terrace address attempted to flee, while officers were seeking to gain entry.

The Northern Echo: Albanian national Emiliano Lamaj was caught tending large-scale cannabis cultivation operation of

As forced entry was being made, the officers involved heard a noise from within.

One of the officers went to the front door where metal roller shutters were partly raised.

Cainan Lonsdale, prosecuting, said at this point a male figure was seen leaving the premises, before running along Eldon Terrace.

Other officers gave chase including a police patrol vehicle driver, and the suspect was detained a short distance away where his mobile phone was seized upon his arrest.

The phone was found to contain images of plants suspected to have been grown in the house from where he tried to flee.

The Northern Echo:

Mr Lonsdale said a search then began at the address, which was found to contain two ground-floor rooms packed with cannabis plants being cultivated with the use of lighting rigs.

Timers were in operation to dictate the lighting operation, while carbon filters and dehumidifiers were also in use to improve the quality of the grow.

The electricity supply for the rooms where the cannabis was being grown had been tampered with to bypass the meter, providing free power for the operation.

But the supply to the domestic rooms, where the defendant was living and sleeping upstairs, was unaffected.

There was a full fridge with other foodstuffs in a cupboard.

Mr Lonsdale said 500 plants were found being grown in one room and 370 were recovered from a second.

Valuations of the potential value for the yield ranged from between £110,000 to £331,000 if sold in bulk, but between £245,000 to £735,000 in street sale terms.

Mr Lonsdale said the cost of setting up the growth of an almost industrial scale of plants would have required a significant investment.

When interviewed, the detained man, Albanian national Emiliano Lamaj, who was unlawfully in the UK, made no comment to police questions.

But, by the time the case went before the court, days after his arrest, the 35-year-old defendant admitted charges of producing a class B drug and abstraction of electricity.

Mark Styles, in mitigation, said it was, “clearly a significant crop for commercial purposes, being kitted out as it was for professional growth”.

But he said the defendant, who has been in the UK for a year and at that address for a month, had not received any payment for his services as “a gardener” by the time the police raided.

Mr Styles said the defendant was expecting to be paid £1,000 upon the crop being harvested and was said to have been “honest and open” about his role to investigators, “in stark contrast to those who go down the route of claiming to have been, in effect, in slave labour.”

He said that having been unemployed for a while after entering the UK illegally, Lamaj took an opportunity offered him to come to Count Durham to tend the cannabis crop, to earn some money.

Judge Nathan Adams told the defendant he was, effectively, "the custodian” of the very large crop and the “sophisticated set up” being used to grow the plants, which had the potential of raising well in advance of £500,000.

“You were in the country illegally and you took that opportunity offered to you to take up this illegal work.

“I accept you were not involved with the people higher up the drugs chain, but you were prepared to act as a gardener in this operation, for which you had been promised to be paid £1,000.”

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He said the defendant would have received 30 months had he taken the case to trial.

But, with a one-third deduction as credit for his early guilty pleas, the total sentence was reduced to one of 20 months’ imprisonment.

Judge Adams told Lamaj that it was likely he will be released near to the mid-point of the sentence, but, given his immigration status, he would then face likely deportation from the UK.