ON a quiet country lane in Kent stands a short row of picturesque houses, each with its own drive and large garden.
By the side of the road, a sign points the way to a children’s nursery. It could not be a more peaceful setting.
But while it might seem a run-of-the-mill scene in Middle England, the folks who call this place home have no idea that they have an exotic — not to mention controversial — neighbour.
Just a farmer’s field away lies Britain’s biggest cannabis factory, churning out weed with an annual street value of £80million.
Two enormous greenhouses mark the spot where 30,000 of the banned plants are grown in top-secret conditions, protected by security patrols, CCTV cameras and motion sensors.
The dozens of men and women tending the leafy plants are no gun-toting gangsters, however.
Instead, they are white-coat clad scientists whose work is all legal.
They are employees of British firm GW Pharmaceuticals, working at the country’s only research facility licensed to grow cannabis on such an
It it believed to be the largest fully legal medical cannabis-growing operation in the world.
While the location is kept a closely guarded secret, The Sun can reveal it is situated on an anonymous industrial park.
The facility is almost three times the size of Britain’s biggest known illegal cannabis-growing operation, uncovered in Bangor in 2009.
Since it opened in 1998, the factory has produced around two million cannabis plants, most of which have been used for medical research or for the production of a drug called Sativex, to help those with multiple sclerosis (MS).
MS affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing problems with balance, vision and muscle movement.
Sativex was the first cannabis-based medicine to be licensed in the UK. It is an oral spray which treats the muscle stiffness which afflicts sufferers. It produces no chemical high.
While the drug is available on the NHS in Wales, it is not in other parts of Britain due to its cost, meaning many users choose to pay for it privately.
Now trials are being conducted to find out whether chemicals extracted from the plants could also be used to treat other conditions.
The firm’s director of botany and cultivation, Dr David Potter, says: “We are testing childhood epilepsy drug Epidiolex in America, and the results are extremely compelling.
“We’re seeing an average reduction of 50 per cent in the number of seizures and, in some cases, it is cut to zero.”
Other possible uses for cannabis-based medications could include the treatment of schizophrenia and diabetes, while there are hopes Sativex may be approved to ease pain in terminal cancer patients.
As a result, GW Pharmaceuticals is expanding its already-huge glasshouse facilities in order to cope with the booming demand for cannabis for medical research.
Shockingly, despite the size of the facility and its scientific importance, only a handful of the locals we speak to know about the growing operation on their doorstep. Engineer Robert Gillie, 54, says: “I had absolutely no idea and I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t think anyone around here knows. As long as it’s all for medical purposes, I’ve got no problem with it.”
Retired Glynis Chatfield, 62, says: “I’m shocked it is located here.
“I’ve heard some people with MS use cannabis because it helps with their symptoms but this is a much better way of doing things.
“Even so, it’s not the kind of thing you expect on your doorstep.”
The factory setting, complete with fans, bright lights, and precisely-controlled levels of fertilisers, is necessary in order to produce
a uniform medical product.
Unlike street cannabis, these plants do not contain any dangerous contaminants or toxic residues.
Despite the quiet location, the facility is ringed with high-security fencing to keep out criminals.
Cannabis is classified as a Class B drug, with a maximum sentence of 14 years for those convicted of producing the drug.
In fact, tough Home Office regulations meant the firm had to spend five months beefing up site security before it could open.
Should any unwanted visitors make it inside, motion and temperature sensors are primed to alert staff, while every corridor is kept under continual video surveillance.
One local who used to work at the plant but did not wish to be named, reveals that employees are also subject to close observation. She says: “There are cameras everywhere — and you have to sign in with a security officer.
“The greenhouses are huge and crammed with cannabis plants. To start with it was strange working with the plants around but after a while you got used to it.”
The firm’s director of botany, Dr Potter, adds: “Once you’re in, it’s more like a garden centre. It’s a very serene working atmosphere.”
Despite being surrounded by the plants, Dr Potter says he’s never been tempted to experiment with the drug, joking: “Real ale is my drug of choice.”
Since the plant opened, there has never been a major security incident. But any drug dealers keen to get hold of the stash might end up disappointed, as around half of the 20 tonnes of dry weight cannabis grown here every year would produce no high in recreational users.
That’s because rather than THC — an ingredient that makes users “stoned” — the plants have been bred to be high in other chemicals, including CBD, currently being researched as a possible anti-schizophrenia medication.
Dr Potter explains: “The thrust with recreational cannabis has been to select seeds from the plants which have high THC levels.
“But we’ve gone back to basics, and have plants not just rich in THC, but other cannabinoids — chemicals unique to cannabis.”
This range of different chemicals is the reason cannabis-based medicines can be used in treating a variety of illnesses. And while some of the medicines may contain the active ingredient of THC, the addition of CBD prevents it from having an intoxicating effect.
Meanwhile, high levels of THC in modern “skunk” cannabis — estimated to be twice as potent as that available in the Sixties — are threatening to create a mental health disaster for street users.
High levels of THC can induce temporary schizophrenia-like symptoms such as paranoia, delusions, anxiety and hallucinations, with some research suggesting it can cause long-term mental problems.
Dr Potter explains: “The THC content has gone up, and the CBD content has gone down. There’s been an increase in the psychoactive ingredient, and the one that was anti-psychotic, mother nature’s antidote, has disappeared.
“So you increase your risk twofold. The actual threat to mental health in the young especially is a concern. It’s not a soft drug.”
Crime Prevention Minister Lynne Featherstone says: “The law allows for a licence to be issued, under strict regulations, to companies growing
controlled substances such as cannabis for research and medicinal purposes.
Decisions are made with proper regard for management of risk and security.”
A government spokesman adds: “The UK does not recognise that cannabis, in its raw form, has a medicinal use. There are people with debilitating illnesses who may not find relief from existing medication. For them, the UK does recognise the medicinal value of cannabis-based medicine Sativex.”
My life’s changed — the pain has gone
SATIVEX patient Nicky Haynes, 40, is from Rutland, Leics. She retired from her job as a council fraud-buster due to ill health. Nicky says:
“I was diagnosed with MS 20 years ago, and it massively affected my life in all kinds of ways.
At times I’d lose feeling from the waist down, or my balance would go, or I’d lose my sense of taste.
But the worst was the pain all over my body all the time. It was excruciating.
I was also intolerant to all of the usual medications – they’d give me hallucinations or cause me liver problems.
So, three years ago, I started taking Sativex and it has transformed my quality of life.
The pain is gone for the first time in years.
And the muscle spasms, I would say, are 80 or 90 per cent reduced.
Now I can do things such as reach for a glass of water without worrying it is going to set off a spasm.
Before I was reliant on my partner, or my two children, to do something like that for me.
Because Sativex isn’t available on the NHS outside Wales, I have to spend £500 a month on my medication and it can be really difficult to find that sort of money.
That’s why I’m a big supporter of the MS Society’s Treat Me Right campaign, which is pushing for fair and equal access to treatments.”