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The secret cannabis kings next door

Hannah isn’t just the girl next door. She’s a teacher who cultivates cannabis on the side. Meet the middle-class growers with a taste for easy money and uneasy morals

Meet Alex. He is 26, handsome, privately educated, and, for most of his week, a freelance director of documentaries. His wardrobe is immaculately shabby: designer jeans, cast-off T-shirts and vintage trainers. The kitchen of his boutique Victorian terraced house is decked with a vast, chrome Smeg refrigerator, a dining table for 12, and two sinks so deep you could bathe in them. He’s just had Velux windows put in, so the room catches the morning light. He also has big plans for the garden. This life looks enviable, does it not? Now ask Alex how he achieved all this so young. Easy, he says: the money grew on trees.

Alex is, in his spare time, a cultivator of high-grade cannabis. For three or four hours a week he tends to the 40 or so marijuana plants that grow in his spare room under the glare of fierce lamps. Once every two months he crops those plants, bags them, makes a phone call, and waits for a man with a suitcase to arrive. Each harvest delivers around five kilograms of a strain of skunk known in the market as “Cheese” on account of its powerful aroma. A kilogram of Cheese is worth around £5,000, wholesale.

Alex is hoping for five, or possibly six harvests this year. His plants are occasionally prone to disease, and he has overheads to pay. Still, he hopes to clear an annual £100,000 profit. Naturally, it will be tax-free.

None of Alex’s neighbours on his quiet street in an affluent city in the southwest knows about his sideline. How would they? He appears to them as he does to me — a polite, successful young man with a burgeoning career. There is never any noise from the house, nor any smell. Alex does not smoke cannabis himself. His sideline is, in his words, “all about the profit”.

He is not alone. Meet Hannah, a well-spoken, 31-year-old primary-school teacher who works in the same city as Alex, with the kind of cute looks that — according to one of her friends — “make dads turn up to parent-teacher evenings”. When Hannah left university, she worked as a PR in London for several years before quitting to have a baby. After splitting up with the father of her child, she retrained as a primary-school teacher and moved out of the capital. Like many recent graduates, she has “significant” student debts. So, two years ago, she turned, as many of her friends had done before her, to a lucrative hobby. She began growing weed.

Hannah generates much less money through cannabis than Alex, but still makes enough to pay her rent and bills. If she were caught she would lose everything: her profession, her reputation, and, for the period of a likely two-year custodial sentence, her child. Why take the risk?

“I know, I know,” she says, giggling nervously. “It is a risk, and you’re always weighing it up in your mind. Is it worth it? But I earn £20,000 a year as a primary-school teacher. I’ve got a child to look after. I don’t get any help from my son’s father. I’ve got debts. The cost of living is so high. If I wasn’t making any extra money I’d be back living with my mum, as a lot of my friends are.

“It comes down to this: I want to do something with my life and this is a way of helping me reach my goals. Maybe, when I’m further along in my career, and I get paid better, I’ll stop. For now, it’s helping me achieve something, and that’s great.”

You will have noticed that this is not, at heart, a drugs story. It’s a money story. More and more young professional Britons are turning to cannabis cultivation as a profit-making venture. They are teachers, lawyers, designers, property developers and plumbers. They should be thriving in the legitimate success of their careers but, somehow, they are not. For some reason, they think they need a little extra on the side.

Where does the money go? One 27-year-old energy consultant I spoke to said growing cannabis was the only way he could afford a holiday. A plumber, who was laid off by his company six months ago, said he was using his bi-monthly output of skunk as a top-up to his jobseekers’ allowance and would quit the moment he found work again. One couple, who work as graphic designers (and whose lives will surely be examined when some future Andrew Marr comes to anecdotalise the early 21st century) have sold cannabis to pay for three courses of IVF treatment.

Over three months, I spoke to many of these part-time cultivators, on condition that I would not reveal their names or locations. None of them thought their extracurricular activities made them criminals. But every single one recognised the grave criminal consequences of being discovered: a prison sentence. They took the risk simply because it was — financially — worth it.

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