Pubdate: Sun, 19 Nov 2000
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Contact:  PO Box 496, London E1 9XW, United Kingdom
Fax: +44-(0)20-782 5658
Author: Marcello Mega, with additional reporting, Ian Fraser Grigor


THE remote croft belonging to Andy MacRury, a sheep farmer, might be in 
bleak and windy Caithness, but his attic might as well be in Morocco. In 
the dry heat of his loft, a secret "field" has produced the lush new crop 
that he hopes will compensate for the dwindling income from his sheep. That 
new crop is cannabis and MacRury is one of a new generation of crofters 
growing it on an agricultural scale.

It was farmers like MacRury who police constable Neil MacDonald, drugs 
officer for Caithness, had in mind last week when he told a conference 
about the scale of the new Highland agriculture.

The cannabis crofters are the modern incarnation of the illicit whisky 
distillers of Highland history - or the smugglers immortalised in Compton 
McKenzie's Whisky Galore. They share the same ambivalent attitude towards 
the law, the same industry and cunning, but they are even more difficult to 

In 1997 there were nine swoops on the illegal cottage industry, but there 
have been no seizures this year. "As we learnt how to catch them, they were 
learning how to avoid being caught. I'm sure that it's a good going 
business," said MacDonald.

To stop his precious crop being seized, MacRury (not his real name), gave a 
detailed set of instructions before The Sunday Times was allowed to visit 
his attic-field. Mobile telephones were to be switched off for the two-hour 
journey north from Inverness. At a certain point on the A882 country lane 
from Wick, we had to pull over and proceed on foot.

For the last mile we were escorted over rough terrain to the rear of an 
isolated cottage. An iron stairway gave direct access to the loft. After 
two sharp knocks the door opened, letting out waves of heat.

The loft was like a house of mirrors, the walls and ceiling covered with 
tin foil. A dozen or so electric heaters were mounted on the walls. MacRury 
had bought them second-hand, along with three warm-air heaters, and wired 
them up himself. Powerful spotlights illuminated the 50 or so cannabis 
plants, some growing in pots, others in water tanks.

He had sown the plants in March this year in desperation at the falling 
income from his croft after hearing that cannabis offered better returns 
than he could produce on his "few acres". He was told that only a little 
initial investment was required.

Various websites devoted to the cultivation of the illegal weed had taught 
him how to obtain seeds and grow the plants.

He estimates that his outlay since March, including his hugely increased 
heating bills, is more than UKP 3,000. He believes that he will eventually 
make a profit, but he doubts whether it will be enough to justify the work 
involved and the risk of being caught.

"In my heart of hearts, I wish I hadn't started this," he said, "but last 
year I worked like a dog and made only UKP 4,000. Three years ago I could 
clear UKP 11,000, which was enough to live well on up here." He will review 
the enterprise after the first full year ends in March.

MacRury is afraid of being caught. He knew one grower who had been 
sentenced to 30 years in jail. Some of his start-up costs included the 
purchase of a number of sun beds, kept in his downstairs living room, which 
will serve as an excuse should the police call.

He had also bought his wife a tumble-drier, he said, partly to placate her 
complaints about his "dodgy business", but also as another excuse for his 
industrial levels of power consumption.

According to MacRury, the plants are not fulfilling their potential. A good 
cannabis plant can grow 8ft high and in optimum conditions can offer 16 
harvests a year. Most of his crop can be measured in inches rather than 
feet, and he has yet to hit the half-kilo mark, which would just about 
cover his costs to date.

Questioned about the morality of his enterprise, he replied: "Where's the 
morality in what this government has done to farmers and crofters, cutting 
us back to the bone? People have to live. Anyway, cannabis is probably less 
harmful than alcohol. I would never be involved in hard drugs."

Superintendent Jim Heddle, area commander for Caithness, said the bigger 
the scale of production, the more likely it was for players in the new 
agriculture to be detected. "It's difficult for people to go into cannabis 
production in their homes or outbuildings without giving off visible signs, 
such as bright lights suddenly being on for much of the night," he said.

Detective Superintendent Charles Hepburn, head of crime management, 
conceded that it was harder to catch locals than outsiders getting in on 
the act. "In one case, strangers took on a previously empty house, drove a 
silver Mercedes and spoke with a London accent. There was no way they could 
blend into the background, which was just as well because they were 
planning to manufacture amphetamines," he said.

"There are many disadvantages in running a force like this with a vast 
rural spread, but a major advantage we have is that people talk to us."

Inquiries by The Sunday Times last week revealed a thriving cottage 
industry rather than serious agri-business, in which many crofters become 
experts in cultivating the weed.

One crofter said his enjoyment of smoking cannabis had been overtaken by 
his obsession with its cultivation. His drug habit had given way to an 
addiction to tending his cannabis allotment. He said he had cultivated "a 
little plantation off the A9" for some years at more than 1,000ft. But he 
stopped cultivating it because he had to climb over a forestry deer fence 
to get to it: "It looked odd in daylight. Even odder in the dark, I should 

He said those who grew cannabis did it for the same reason as they grew 
tomatoes and baked cakes: "It's nicer to produce something than buy it at 
Safeway's." He also pointed out that casual smokers wished to avoid using 
dealers: "It's all international criminals and gangsters nowadays, so 
people won't go near them."

The hide-and-seek game played by the Northern Constabulary and the cannabis 
crofters is, according to Blast, the Inverness addict support group, a 
harmless sideshow.

The real threat comes from a ruthless marketing strategy being deployed by 
the area's heroin dealers. Heroin is being sold in UKP 3 wraps, enough to 
give the user a quick hit and the dealer a life-long customer.

MacRury can stretch out on his sun bed and relax. His Highland cannabis 
caper may be frustrating, but for now MacDonald and his colleagues have 
serious police work to do.
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