Drug swoop targets national shop chain
BY BRITTON BROUN AND KATE NEWTON
LATEST: Staff, managers and customers of a well-known chain of horticulture shops have been arrested in a massive crackdown designed to break the backbone of the $800 million cannabis industry.
Officers swooped on 35 gardening businesses across New Zealand yesterday - including all 16 branches of Switched On Gardener - after employees allegedly sold undercover police drugs, plants and growing equipment.
Some people arrested in Wellington are charged with selling drug-growing equipment, including 600-watt lightbulbs, bottles of Superior Potash, Guano Superbloom and Budzilla, pH test kits, mite and aphid sprays, and High Times cannabis magazines.
The two-year Operation Lime has resulted in more than 250 arrests on more than 700 charges and busted more than 100 commercial cannabis-growing operations.
Ninety people were arrested yesterday in morning raids on businesses and homes.
Dried cannabis was found in at least one Switched On Gardener shop. LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and firearms were also seized.
Deputy Police Commissioner Rob Pope said employees, managers and company directors were arrested.
Police allege undercover officers were sold equipment, plants, drugs and offered cannabis-growing tips.
He would not say if the businesses were directly involved in commercial growing operations.
It is illegal to manufacture or sell equipment knowing it will be used to make drugs.
"We've got strong evidence of [the businesses'] complicity in supplying equipment for cannabis growing on a sophisticated scale," Mr Pope said.
The focus was on crippling the organised crime behind the cannabis trade, which did at least $430m social harm each year, he said.
"Our continuing focus on organised crime is starting to pay dividends - we've locked up over a thousand offenders over the last four months."
Police were checking if any of the horticulture companies' assets could be forfeited under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act.
A Trade Me spokesman, Chris Budge, said police had asked it to close the accounts of three members - who he understood had been arrested.
Police had also told Trade Me to ban auctions of some types of fertiliser, growing lamps and machines used to extract seeds.
Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party leader Michael Appleby, a Wellington lawyer, said Operation Lime was an "absurd waste" of police and Justice Ministry resources. "Surely there are more important things to do than target businesses that sell equipment - whether it be used for cannabis or flowers."
In Wellington yesterday, 45 police raided three businesses - including the Kaiwharawhara Switched On Gardener - and two houses.
Six people were arrested and 12 marijuana plants were found at one home.
Wellington police say 23 people will face more than 60 charges.
More than $200,000 worth of drugs were seized in Wellington, including nearly 290 cannabis plants, around 20kg of dried cannabis and more than 630 tabs of LSD.
Wellington police's asset recovery unit has also seized $200,000 and restrained four houses during this operation.
The first Switched On Gardener store opened in Auckland in the late 1990s. Its website is registered to Stoneware 91 Ltd, an Auckland company directed by Michael Quinlan and owned by Valerie and Paula Brown. None of them could be contacted last night.
In Wellington District Court yesterday, Andrew Russell Allan, 49, of Upper Hutt, faced two charges of supplying equipment for cannabis cultivation.
Bo Georg Nilsson, 42, a Newtown sales representative, faced six charges, including supplying equipment for cannabis cultivation and possession of cannabis for supply.
Antony Keith Lindsay, 28, of Eketahuna, faced two charges of supplying equipment for cannabis cultivation.
Jason Peter Vanderveen, 39, and Bernadette Ann Watson, 41, both from Wainuiomata, were jointly charged on 11 counts of supplying equipment for cannabis cultivation, and five of selling the illegal party drug BZP.
All were remanded on bail until May 19.
SPOTLIGHT ON CANNABIS
* Cannabis is linked to more than $30 million a year in hospital bills. Those costs rose 50 per cent from $19.5m in 2004 to $31m in 2005.
* The majority of cannabis- related patients were suffering from a psychotic disorder, followed by cannabis poisoning, harmful use, dependance and acute intoxication.
* Of the 2062 hospital cases in 2005, 48 admissions cost between $100,000 and $370,000 each.
* Maori account for nearly half of all cannabis-related hospital admissions.
* Cannabis could account for up to 10 per cent of cases of psychosis.
* A quarter of all cannabis seized is linked to organised crime.
* Half of Kiwis have tried it, one in eight uses it regularly. Nearly 80 per cent of adults under 25 have tried it.
* Immediate effects: relaxation, loss of inhibition, heightened sense of sound and vision, less co-ordination, laughter, increased appetite.
* Long-term risks: memory impairment, poor concentration span, loss of motivation, feelings of paranoia.
Source: National Drug Intelligence Bureau and the New Zealand Drug Foundation
- The Dominion Post