Page last updated at 00:17 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009
'Hash in the attic'

Kaya Russell-Whitaker and BBC reporter Sam Poling
The BBC's Sam Poling said she learnt later in her investigation that most farmers are not like Kaya Russell-Whitaker

By Sam Poling
BBC Scotland

In all the years I have worked as a journalist, few characters I've investigated have surprised me more than this woman - Kaya Russell-Whitaker.

She's an attractive and articulate mother of three with a university education.

Well spoken, she's a successful businesswoman whom anyone would delight in having as a neighbour. A friend even.

Yet behind closed doors, Kaya had led a double life.

One which had taken her - and her family - into the illegal and dangerous world of cannabis farming.

It was a life she had chosen for one reason and one reason only - to make money.

She told me: "The second I potted the first plant I was a drug dealer.

Kaya Russell-Whitaker
The mother-of-three stopped growing the drug when police raided her home

"I wasn't growing for myself in a cupboard, I was growing for myself in a room which was holding about £3,000 of hydroponic equipment.

"I wasn't doing this to satisfy myself downstairs on the settee at night, I was doing it to pay my mortgage, I was doing this as a full-on career and a lifestyle choice.

"And from the second I potted that plant, with that intention, I was a drug dealer."

I first met Kaya after I had just started investigating the explosion of suburban weed farming for my programme Hash in the Attic.

I was desperate to speak to someone who had farmed the drug on a large scale and I was delighted when, through a trusted contact, she agreed to meet me.

The story she told me was both shocking and sad.

Living out of a truck as a traveller in Europe, Kaya found herself with a young baby and a very abusive partner.

He was was a heavy smoker of marijuana and it was this habit which helped her hatch an escape plan. She suggested they return to the UK to set up their own cannabis farm.

It really felt like a epic adventure to set up this grow farm
Kaya Russell-Whitaker

"I chose my moment very carefully, because I'd grown very frightened of him, and within 24 hours he'd turned the truck around and we headed straight back to France," she said.

"We did the drive in three days across the Channel, and came down to Devon where we found a couple of growers who were prepared to help us learn how to grow marijuana.

"It's like a recipe, once you've been given the formula, you go ahead, you mix the ingredients exactly like you're making a cake, you practice a few times and before you know it, you're adept.

"So by the end of your first crop, which is from six to eight weeks, you're definitely starting to get the feel of it, you're also starting to get the feel of all the things that can go wrong.

"By the end of your second crop you're definitely a mature enough grower to be able to go on and grow on your own."

Within months of returning to the UK, Kaya's life as a cannabis farmer evolved beyond all recognition.

Using the cover of suburbia, she moved into the idyllic Devonshire village of Crediton.

The property where Kaya Russell-Whitaker grew cannabis
The cannabis was grown in the house above the cream-coloured shop

It was here she converted bedrooms of a rented house, sandwiched between two elderly neighbours, into her first cannabis farm.

Windows were boarded up and curtains were drawn to hide her guilty secret. Within weeks of growing her first crop, she was hooked.

"It really felt like a epic adventure to set up this grow farm, with lights, which you can buy from a wholesaler, chemicals which you can buy from a wholesaler, and grow medium," she told me.

"You mix up the chemicals and your lights are on little chains and on timers and they roll back and forth on the ceiling and your plants sway in the wind of the fans, and it all feels like you're part of a James Bond movie.

"At some point you dream of being able to sell what you're so excited about growing.

"You take it somewhere, you sell it to somebody who gives you the cash on demand. So you go with a rucksack full of marijuana and you come back with £12,000 to £16,000 in cash.

"And I can't think of anybody that wouldn't want to go on that adventure initially."

Drug-free location

Soon, Kaya was earning a fortune, her get-rich-quick scam was actually working. In one year alone she raked in £170,000.

She knew she was introducing cannabis into an otherwise drug-free, rural location but she was being driven by money and at the time didn't stop to think of those who would become the victims.

"It's not the 40-year-olds or the 50-year-olds that suddenly start smoking that stuff, it's the younger people," she said.

"And what happens is that you technically ruin lives on a permanent basis for many, many years. And it's a legacy that I have to live with."

Kaya's career as a cannabis farmer was eventually cut short when her farm was raided by police.

Kaya was selling high-strength skunk to people in their teens and early 20s

It was, she told me, the best thing which could have happened to her.

She said: "When I started growing marijuana I thought I had a lot of control. I soon realised that whatever control I had, had long gone.

"There's this kind of legacy from the 1960s that marijuana is this fantastic hippy drug that was part of the sexual revolution and those days are gone, they're history.

"Marijuana now is a hard core drug that is grown by cynical people who are accomplished predators who will use absolutely anybody or anything to make their profit, whether it's their own children, their parents, they will use anybody to launder money and they will use anybody as a cover."

I asked Kaya whether she was describing herself. Her answer was brutal in its honesty.

"Yes," she said, "I'm sorry to say I am."

As my investigation into cannabis farming continued, I learned that most weed farmers in the UK weren't like Kaya.

It is, in the main, a global industry controlled by organised crime.

Many of the growers are south-east Asian, forced to grow cannabis in exchange for being smuggled into Britain.

Ever since meeting Kaya, I can't help looking up at first floor windows wondering what might be going on behind the net curtains of suburbia.

Hash in the Attic will be broadcast on Tuesday, 3 November on BBC One Scotland at 2235 GMT.

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