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Police Station used as Cannabis Farm - Real Life Cheech & Chong Story

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Law and order up in smoke:
After a police station that kept the peace was taken over by cannabis farmers,
PAUL BRACCHI's visit to its despairing community reveals it’s the perfect parable for the modern policing crisis

* Failsworth Police Station, Oldham stood at heart of community for 100 years
* Recently officers faced a huge problem of cannabis growers in local area
* But after the station was closed down it was taken over by the growers
* Following a police raid, a factory of 'more than 1,000 plants', but only root balls, soil and empty pots was found left behind

By Paul Bracchi for the Daily Mail
Published: 01:29 BST, 6 July 2019

Sergeant Paul Archer is not a name that will mean very much to anyone outside Failsworth. But to the people in this neighbourhood on the outskirts of Manchester he was the face of the local police, the reassuring presence behind the front counter at the local ‘nick’. Not so long ago, around 30 officers worked out of the station, a grand, double-fronted building (with cells in the basement) in the heart of the community on bustling Oldham Road. One of the major problems facing Sgt Archer and his men was drugs; in particular the scourge of cannabis farms which were springing up in almost every other street on his patch. Sgt Archer appealed for help from the public to combat the gangs running the lucrative trade.

‘I would ask residents to be alert to the pungent and unique smell cannabis has and if anyone who has suspicions that an address might be being used to grow cannabis to call us,’ he said in an interview with the Manchester Evening News. ‘By working together we can stop the supply of illegal drugs, identify and arrest those responsible and prevent innocent homes being targeted.’

The date was March, 2011. Two years later, Sgt Paul Archer was gone — and so was his police station which was closed along with four others in Greater Manchester. How bitterly ironic — farcical, many would say — his heartfelt ‘appeal’ to combat drug gangs in Failsworth seems today. Why? Because the disused police station at 511 Oldham Road — where the words POLICE STATION are carved in giant letters into the stone above the entrance — was turned into a £1.5 million cannabis factory, it came to light this week. You couldn’t make it up, could you? ‘Gobsmacked’ is how the elderly woman who lives next door, in the neat terrace with garden gnomes outside, described the revelation.

Pauline Corr, 75, has lived here in the property adjoining the now former police station for more than 40 years. Her late husband Ernie, a retired printer, knew the uniformed neighbours at ‘Number 511’ well. ‘They were proper “bobbies”,’ said Mrs Corr.

When Ernie passed away back in 2000, a patrol car escorted the hearse to the Catholic church down the road as a mark of respect. Hardly likely to happen today — a small but telling insight into the way policing has changed, not just in Failsworth but in towns and cities all over the country where the thin blue line has become almost invisible

Surely, though, few repercussions from swingeing budgetary cuts, resulting in 45,000 officers and staff being lost nationally in a decade — including a third of all ‘bobbies on the beat’ since 2015 — could have proved more humiliating for the police than the events which unfolded at No 511 Oldham Road on Wednesday when officers on patrol spotted the building was unlocked and went to investigate.

Inside, behind the front counter where Sgt Archer, who is still with the Manchester force, was such a familiar and reassuring figure, they found plant root balls, empty pots and hydroponic lighting equipment used to cultivate an estimated 1,000 cannabis plants which had already been ‘harvested.’

The discovery prompted one frustrated resident to post this stinging comment on Greater Manchester Police’s Facebook page for Failsworth: ‘Words fail me! Couldn’t catch a cold this lot!!’ A sentiment shared by many in Failsworth. Her reason is spelled out in more detail elsewhere on the social media site. ’How about when a grow [cannabis grower] was reported to them nine weeks ago in the building opposite the old cop shop, and they’ve still not even been near, leaving innocent hardworking people to deal with drug dealers,’ she added angrily.

The resident in question runs a business in Oldham Road but asked not to be identified because she feared reprisals.

Recently the ‘pungent’ smell of cannabis — to borrow Sgt Archer’s description — had also started wafting over gardens near the back yard of the old police station where squad cars and vans were once parked. ‘We just thought teenagers were smoking it,’ said one neighbour.

Few could have guessed the culprits would have been brazen enough to turn such an iconic local landmark on the main thoroughfare through Failsworth, less than a mile from an operational police station, into the kind of sprawling ‘greenhouse’ pioneered in Bogota or Medellin — and with as little chance of getting caught nowadays, it seems, as their Colombian counterparts.

So the transformation of Failsworth police station is not just the story of another illicit cannabis farm; in many ways it epitomises, in microcosm, much of what has gone wrong in increasingly lawless Britain in recent years.

Last month a Mail investigation revealed that nine in ten cannabis users and growers in some areas of England are being let off without a criminal charge, as more and more police turn a blind eye to the harmful effects of the drug.

Some are even openly campaigning for its legalisation, while at the same time the levels of cannabis-induced psychosis are so high the NHS has opened its first clinic specifically for cannabis addicts. Even Conservative politicians, it seems, can no longer be relied upon to take a tough stance. Less than two weeks ago the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group was launched, with the backing of several North American firms who produce the drug and big name MPs such as Crispin Blunt, former Prisons Minister.

Opened in 1892 — yes, more than a century ago — Failsworth police station was manned, originally, by special constables appointed by magistrates to combat ‘tumult, riot and felony’. The base was then part of the Lancashire Constabulary and remained so until the establishment of the modern Greater Manchester Police (GMP) in the Sevnties.

The old Lancashire coat of arms, featuring two guard dogs, is still prominently visible on the front of the imposing building. The Failsworth and Hollinwood Neighbourhood Policing Team — part of GMP — would eventually be located at 511 Oldham Road.

The activities of the team were well documented in the local press between 2011 and 2013.

By then, the cannabis trade, once a cottage industry typically involving a few plants in a student bedsit, had become a multi-million pound business because unofficially, prosecuting ‘suppliers’ was no longer a priority for many senior police officers and there was growing belief among some that the Class B Drug should be legalised.

Sgt Archer and his colleagues were not among them.

They carried out a series of raids on clubs, pubs and houses following a proliferation of cannabis production in Failsworth. Violence was endemic. In one incident, a man had his thumb severed by a machete-wielding gang searching for drugs to steal — a crime commonly known as ‘cannabis taxing’. In another high-profile swoop, 2,000 plants were found in a house near the police station.

‘Thanks to a call from a member of the public, we have managed to prevent a large amount of drugs from hitting the streets,’ Sgt Archer was quoted as saying in his local paper at the time.

The reward for the team’s tireless efforts serving the community? The Oldham Road station was closed, in 2013.

In 2016, it was auctioned off. The estate agent’s blurb read: ‘Two storey (plus basement) end of terrace former police station premises with enclosed and gated rear car park.’

The building eventually fetched £190,000 when it went under the hammer along with stations at Mossley (£165,000), Northenden (£217,000) and Ramsbottom (£226,000).

Land Registry records show the owner of the Failsworth station to be lettings firm CLS Properties (Manchester) Ltd.

The directors, David Cassidy, 38, and Peter Hough, 54, also run Manchester-based firm Contract Lifting Solutions Ltd, which transports heavy items nationwide.

A woman believed to be the partner of Mr Cassidy answered the door at his home in the city. ‘The building [the old police station] is ours,’ she said. ‘It’ been derelict for a while.

‘We got planning permission for a flats a couple of years ago and then we left it because of the funds required.

‘The first we knew about [the cannabis factory] was when it was on the news. The police didn’t inform us. We woke up to it.

‘We began receiving calls from people. We have not spoken to the police yet. I believed they called at the house but we were at work at the time.’

The criminals behind the operation smashed and boarded up windows to hide the bright lights needed to cultivate the crop; they didn’t even pay for the electricity; the meter had been bypassed, which is standard practice in this line of work.

‘The place stank of cannabis,’ said one neighbour who went inside after the police had finished at the scene.

‘There were two camp beds for the men [known as ‘gardeners’] who had been doing the watering. Huge plastic pipes had been laid to let the heat from the lamps out of the building. It was a big operation.’

Greater Manchester Police said the closure of the five stations saved the force £100,000 a year. But at what cost to the community?

‘This used to be a lovely area,’ said one elderly woman.

‘You could let your children play out in the streets and never worry. Now we have stabbings, drugs and a cannabis farm in our old police station.’ Cannabis cultivation is now so widespread that, in London, they are being found every two days, according to Scotland Yard. Many are controlled by Vietnamese or Albanian gangs, often using trafficked slaves as ‘minders’ and ‘gardeners’.

But just one in five producers caught last year was charged. In Greater Manchester, arrests for growing cannabis have plummeted from 1,353 in 2012 to 275 in 2018, freedom of information requests have revealed.

‘I can smell cannabis in the air every evening when I put up the shutters,’ said one shopkeeper near the old police station in Failsworth. ‘It is wafting out of the windows of passing cars. It’s people who have finished work and can’t even wait to get home before they roll a joint.’

Why, some might ask, should this matter? Critics argue that the police, especially in cities like Manchester, are encouraging professional cannabis gangs by effectively ‘decriminalising’ the drug — which, let’s not forget, has been linked to depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosis — by their soft treatment of users.

Indeed, it’s a vicious circle which seems to spiralling right out of control, if recent events are anything to go by.

Only last month, a disused bingo hall — and former Regal cinema — in the centre of Kettering, Northamptonshire, was revealed to be a vast cannabis factory producing drugs worth as much as £2.8 million a year.

The Mail pieced together a chain of transactions that might lead to the culprit behind the operation, but there have still been no arrests.

Now the Failsworth farce.

Ian Hopkins, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester has said budget cuts — the force has lost 2,000 frontline staff over the past decade — have meant his officers had to prioritise more ruthlessly than ever; he admitted about 430 offences a day were being ‘screened out’.

‘If your life is in danger, you’ve been seriously hurt, we will turn up,’ he told BBC Radio Manchester. ‘If there is an immediate threat we will be there in numbers.

‘If your shed’s been broken into, your bike’s been stolen, your vehicle’s broken into and there’s no witnesses, there’s no CCTV and there’s no opportunity for forensics, your likelihood of a police officer turning up to deal with that is almost non-existent.’

To that list can now be added, turning the local police station into a cannabis factory.

n Additional reporting: Stephanie Condron and Tim Stewart.

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