THE 68-YEAR-OLD owner of a factory turned to growing cannabis when his business was hit by the credit crunch, a judge heard.
Donald Reynolds kitted out a secret compartment at Warstaff Engineering, Rugeley, with a sophisticated cultivation system.
It was discovered by chance after a small fire in the main part of the factory, said Mr Paul Farrow, prosecuting.
Firemen sifting through debris noticed some pots and decayed vegetation, and they were unable to access part of the building to carry out a post-fire safety check.
Reynolds initially told them he had been employing some men at the factory, but then said: “Times are hard – can I show you this?”
He led them through a false locker and into a 30-foot long room, lined with foil and floored with a water-filled plastic tray.
In the room were small cannabis plants growing. Police estimated the yield from the crop could have had a street value as high as £8,500.
Reynolds, of New Road, Shuttington, Tamworth, who admitted a charge of cultivating cannabis, was given a 12-month prison sentence, but Judge Mark Eades suspended it for two years and ordered him to do 250 hours of unpaid community work.
The judge told him: “This was no fly-by-night operation. You had invested a considerable amount of time and money setting up this cannabis factory.
“I have no doubt the mainspring was the downturn in the economy and your need to find some source of money.
“I have no doubt you resorted, under pressure, to follow this criminal line hoping you would make money.
“Whether you would have done so had you not been caught is a matter for speculation. The chances are you would not have made very much.
“This was your third crop and it is clear your knowledge was limited. You are the most unlikely candidate to find sources through which to sell the cannabis.
“What am I to do with you? Sixty-eight, not in the best of health, no previous convictions.”
Mr Simon Drew, defending, said Reynolds had tried twice previously to grow crops and both had rotted.
He said: “He is somewhat naive about the process, he had absolutely no idea where he could start selling it on.”
“His explanation for committing the offence was curiosity.
“It’s a curious explanation. Whatever he was up to he hadn’t got very far.
“He is 68 and terrified of what’s to happen to him.”
Mr Farrow told Stafford Crown Court that in a police interview, Reynolds said his business, in Power Station Road, Rugeley, had been struggling since the credit crisis and he wasn’t employing anyone.
He decided to build the cannabis factory after talking to people over the internet.