Police to monitor hydroponics sales

Last updated 19:48 28/04/2010

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Businesses targeted in a nationwide clamp-down on suppliers of cannabis-growing equipment will be required to keep comprehensive records of all their customers and turn them over to police.

Meanwhile, police arrested a further seven people today as part of the operation, including a man who was nabbed at Auckland International Airport on his return from London.

Police swooped on 35 businesses and homes yesterday as part of a two-year undercover operation targeting the commercial sale of equipment used for growing cannabis.

More than 250 people now face over 700 charges.

About 6000 cannabis plants and 60kg of dried cannabis have so far been seized, along with stashes of methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD and a drug believed to be BZP.

The busts have also uncovered eight firearms, including illegal semi-automatic weapons, and $200,000 in cash.

The drug swoop, code named Operation Lime, targeted businesses selling hydroponic gardening equipment and led police to a nationwide network of cannabis growers and drug dealers.

The first of those arrested appeared in district courts around the country today, where many were slapped with bail conditions that allowed their businesses to remain open but restricted the terms of their trading.

Directors, managers and employees of nationwide hydroponics store Switched On Gardener were among the 17 people who appeared in Auckland District Court today, facing a raft of charges.

The company's distribution centre and all 16 of its branches were targeted in yesterday's police swoop, code named Operation Lime.

Auckland field crime manager Detective Inspector Stu Allsopp-Smith said the company's directors and employees were granted bail on the condition that staff maintain records of all customers purchasing equipment at its stores

They must check every customer's photo identification and record their full name, date of birth, address, contact phone number, and ID serial number.

They must also record descriptions of all purchased items, along with serial numbers or other unique identifications.

Each transaction record should be dated and signed by the employee, and must be made available to police for inspection, Mr Allsopp-Smith said.

"These businesses can continue to operate, but people purchasing legitimately from them will need to produce identification - the obvious inference being that we don't want to in any way frustrate a business from behaving and operating lawfully," he told NZPA.

The move would deter would-be cannabis growers, he said.

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"One would suggest that if you were going to set up a hydroponic cannabis grow-house, that you probably would want a level of anonymity, and this bail condition may not provide you with that."

The bail conditions would also apply to internet sales.

The online auction site TradeMe yesterday banned trading in equipment used to cultivate cannabis and shut down three user accounts.

The conditions would likely apply to those facing charges throughout the country, Mr Allsopp-Smith said.

Police today said a further 23 indoor cannabis growing operations had been uncovered and seven more people arrested since the busts began early yesterday morning.

One of those arrested today was a 43-year-old man who was caught at Auckland Airport on his return from London, deputy commissioner Rob Pope said.

Police are continuing to execute search warrants across the country as more information came to light from those in custody. Five more people were being sought.

In Christchurch District Court today, the director and sales assistant of Peat and Garden Supplies faced similar bail conditions, including maintaining a customer register and living at specified addresses, the Christchurch Court News website reported.

The director was also required to surrender her passport.

The pair face a total of 26 charges, including supplying cannabis magazine High Times and cannabis DVDs, supplying bottles of nutrients, lighting, and hydroponic equipment, cultivating cannabis, selling cannabis, and possession of cannabis for supply.

Police are confident that prosecutions would be successful, Mr Allsopp-Smith said.

"We can't wait to produce the evidence in court, which we believe will be more than sufficient."

Commenting on the charges today, barrister Steve Bonnar said their success would hinge on proving suppliers knew their equipment would be used to cultivate cannabis.

"The battle lines will be drawn on what the knowledge was," Mr Bonnar told the New Zealand Herald.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is an offence to supply equipment with the knowledge that it would be used to cultivate prohibited plants.

The maximum penalty is seven years jail.

The trading companies Switched On Group, Switched On Contracting, Switched On Painting and Switched On Property Maintenance said today they were are not connected in any way with Switched On Gardener.

- NZPA

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