In 2016, the idea of corporations running large-scale weed-growing operations is a relatively mainstream one. With attitudes relaxing towards cannabis, the plant now being legal in a number of states, and the "green economy" clearly being a very viable way of making big money, it probably won't be all that long until we start to see multinational conglomerates built on buds.
However, in the early 2000s, weed was still a dirty word; the notion of a cannabis farm being able to operate like a legitimate, tax-paying business would have seemed absurd. So you can imagine their surprise when, in 2010, North Wales police discovered that such an enterprise had been running out of a factory in a Kinmel Bay industrial estate since the turn of the millennium, right next to their helicopter HQ.
The business worked exactly like a regular company, conducting interviews with prospective employees and paying taxes under the guise of being a legal business. Authorities claimed that the company, which was Wales's biggest cannabis farm, generated profits of $2 million per year, and was described in court as "nothing short of a rolling production line."
I caught up with its former owner, Mark Graham, to find out how he managed to keep such a ridiculously large grow house going for over a decade.
VICE: What made you want to get involved in growing weed on this scale?
Mark Graham: I started off importing cannabis, working with a group in Holland known as the Amsterdam Mafia. I'm an engineer at heart, though, not a middleman, and like to make money by making something new instead of simply adding a mark-up to someone else's work. To grow cannabis properly while remaining undercover was a complex project to set up. The day-to-day growing was quite boring, and I think that's why I couldn't resist continually expanding the operation to increase the challenge.
What made you want to set up your cannabis factory right next to the headquarters of North Wales police's helicopter division? Was that to add to the challenge?
The police spin doctors regularly tell the newspapers they've closed down another drug factory, when they actually mean a dingy little room in a house. They wouldn't know a drug factory if one collapsed on them. They're so busy looking for misdemeanors they can big up that they miss the important stuff. My factories were so big that they couldn't recognize them for what they were. A massive factory next to the police helicopter hangar was invisible to them.
How did your factory operate? I read it was structured like a legitimate business.
I was the boss; I made policy decisions and controlled the overview of the enterprise. I was responsible for all engineering and equipment. I set the price, collected seeds from the Netherlands twice a year, made deliveries to the distributors, and mucked in with the gardening crew. James controlled the day-to-day conveyor operations. Three others were the gardening crew.
Over time, I developed two good distributors in the south of England, who acted autonomously. I knew very little about them, which was deliberate. They didn't trade at street level, but through a group of associates. At various times over the years, I recruited others, but soon dropped them, usually because they were either dishonest or lazy.
How did you source your employees?
I advertised in a couple of magazines and newspapers around London. The adverts were vague; I can't remember the exact wording. Like most job ads, they were comprised of words that meant nothing.
And what about the job interviews? You presumably had to be very careful about how much you gave away.
Yes. The average testosterone-fueled young man likes the idea of a little risk, but still has a sense of morality. I asked questions like: Do you have a problem breaking a meaningless law? Do you want a decent job that pays properly? Do you want to be part of a professional outfit? Can you follow orders and work as a team? And: Do you want respect for your efforts?
You're against the prohibition of cannabis—were you motivated as much by those beliefs as the lure of profit?
I don't promote the use of cannabis. Personally, I don't smoke it and never have. I do, however, drink the occasional glass of wine or whisky. The government's own scientific advisors are on record as saying that if alcohol was invented today, under the present rules, it would be borderline class A or B. Therefore, there's obviously no health-related reason for banning cannabis, so the government is lying. You have to ask yourself: Why? What's the nature of the conspiracy? The answer, of course, is money. They can't find a way to tax a weed that will grow anywhere. I didn't grow cannabis as some kind of political statement; I did it to make money. Earning a living honestly is a righteous thing to do, providing it doesn't cause harm to others. Just because you don't approve of a particular vice, it doesn't give you the right to make criminals of those who enjoy harmless pleasures that are different to your own.
Are you for the legalization of all drugs, or just cannabis?
Our government deliberately banned scientists from researching the effects of drugs in this country, so no one could get to the truth. King's College London got around this by conducting twenty-five years of research in New Zealand. The college's expert conclusion was that cannabis is safe for adults. It's not safe for children, but who in their right mind would serve recreational drugs to children? I'm not knowledgeable about other drugs, and unlike politicians, I don't mouth off on subjects about which I know nothing.
You've previously claimed that the reason you were able to get away undetected for so long was that, apart from growing cannabis, you were a law-abiding citizen.
Yeah, the only reason nut cases are involved in cannabis supply is because our government has frightened off the sensible people. It was exactly the same with the 1920s alcohol prohibition in America; if you're not inclined to violence or dishonesty, there's no reason why plants can't be grown and the crop sold to willing customers for a fair price. In spite of what the government says, the market is huge and expanding—why would you want to resort to any form of criminal behavior?
One of the trickiest parts was declaring income tax and corporation tax, which I did. It's very difficult to pay tax on drug income, but I managed it. Perversely, the government calls it "money laundering" when you set up a front company to pay them tax.
You also claim that legally held cash and assets disappeared after your businesses had been raided, and then that three of your warehouses were burned down. Can you go into more detail about that?
Around £60,000 [$87,000] worth of goods were taken from three warehouses in Kinmel Bay that I had rented. As the police left the warehouses, all three of them conveniently burned to the ground. A substantial amount of cash was also seized from my distributors and never reported. It just disappeared from the face of the Earth.
The entire initial restraint and confiscation process was illegal as well. They used the wrong law—the Proceeds of Crime Act instead of the Drug Trafficking Act. POCA only became operational in 2003, and I was being indicted from 2000. You can't be indicted for a crime that didn't exist when you committed it! The police have no concept of legality; it's purely a case of what they can get away with.
POCA is designed to confiscate from anyone all assets that the government wishes to take. It's not necessary to have committed a crime, and the burden of proof is reversed so that those targeted must prove in court not only that their assets were acquired by legal means, but also that they'll never be used in the future for an unlawful act. Remember the Tom Cruise film Minority Report? POCA allows our judges to claim they can predict the future.
What are you doing now that your cannabis growing days are over?
After writing Cannabis Man, which was my first ebook about my experiences growing cannabis, I needed a website and internet presence, but couldn't find anyone who did what I wanted, so I taught myself coding and arranged everything myself. This has grown into a business for all kinds of independent entrepreneurs.
Nowadays, I try to tell my younger amigos that a disaster is something to be embraced, because as you climb out of a crater, you have a chance to examine the framework that holds everything up. I may not have encountered the breadth of the state's corruption, but I've certainly had a chance to witness the depth of its depravity.
Follow Nick Chester on Twitter.