Switched off gardeners

Michael Quinlan, above, could lose everything he has worked for. Below, one of the 16 Switched on Gardener branches targeted by police.
Photos: Phil Doyle; Nelson Mail
Michael Quinlan, above, could lose everything he has worked for. Below, one of the 16 Switched on Gardener branches targeted by police.

When police launched a series of unprecedented nationwide raids on hydroponic stores in April, Michael Quinlan was the man they considered their biggest catch. They allege Quinlan is an organised crime boss – he says he's just a gardening store owner. Tony Wall reports.

MICHAEL QUINLAN says he doesn't smoke dope. "I haven't smoked for years," the 50-year-old owner of the Switched on Gardener chain tells the Sunday Star-Times. "I just choose not to – I'm an ex-cigarette smoker."

Some might say a joint is exactly what Quinlan needs to ease his giant legal headache.


After police raided dozens of hydroponic stores around the country on April 27, including the 16 Switched on Gardener branches, they threw the book at Quinlan, charging him with 35 counts of cultivating and supplying cannabis, as well as participating in an organised criminal group, which carries a maximum jail term of 10 years.

"When that law came in [late last year] they said `normal citizens don't have to fear, it's a gang law for gangs'. Bulls--t," Quinlan says.

Not stopping there, police also used new proceeds of crime legislation to freeze Quinlan's assets, including his $1 million home at Whangaparaoa, north of Auckland, with spectacular views of the Hauraki Gulf, and $189,000 in a bank account.

An appeal against the restraining order will be heard in October. Quinlan's trial could be up to two years away – already police have applied for time extensions for providing disclosure material because of the sheer amount of paperwork involved.

Lawyers say Quinlan's trial will become a test case for how cannabis law is enforced in this country. If he is found guilty, he could lose everything he has worked so hard to achieve.

In 1990 he and his younger brother John, who died of a heart attack in 2003, started the first Switched on Gardener store in Henderson, West Auckland. They built the business to the point where its annual turnover today is about $10m. Quinlan also owns a website design company and a giftware company with combined turnover of about $6m.

He has a social conscience – sponsoring the Auckland rescue helicopter for 10 years and donating to various causes, including a recent $5000 grant to a young man with a spinal injury for stem cell treatment in India.

But none of this impresses police. They claim their two-year undercover operation, tagged Operation Lime, broke the "cornerstone" of the cannabis industry and that Quinlan was one of its chiefs. Those who know Quinlan say the charges are ridiculous.

"He's not this big druggie guy," says Chris Fowlie, editor of the Norml News magazine and a friend of Quinlan's for more than 10 years. "He doesn't even smoke, he's Mr Straight, he's just a businessman and he's absolutely hands-off."

Quinlan doesn't work in his stores, but has been charged with the individual "grows" of 35 Switched on Gardener customers.

The Star-Times has learnt that undercover officers watched the stores and profiled customers. Those they considered most likely to be cannabis users they followed home, and, in some cases, found plants. Quinlan has been charged as a party, for aiding and abetting the crime.

"They're trying to say that I know what every single one of my customers is doing – it's impossible."

Warren Brookbanks, a professor of law at Auckland University, says Quinlan's physical proximity to the customers and their plots does not come into it. "It will turn entirely on the question of his knowledge, whether he knew what was being done and whether he intended to assist the principal offenders in the operation."

Police allege that undercover officers were given advice on how to grow cannabis and even purchased cannabis cuttings over the counter, but Quinlan's defence will point to the fact that he and his senior managers are strict on staff caught breaking the law – and that many employees have been sacked for breaching company policy.

Fowlie, who has seen a police summary of facts on the raids which runs to more than 100 pages, doubts the charges against Quinlan will stick.

"There's no `we spotted you meeting this guy in a dark alleyway and exchanging a parcel', there's no unexplained money in his bank, there's no packaged up cannabis, there's no bundles of cash or assets he can't explain," Fowlie says.

On April 27, as 500 police officers raided 35 homes and businesses nationwide, arresting 233 people, more than a dozen officers spent 11 hours going over Quinlan's home with a fine-tooth comb.

"They thought I was money laundering," Quinlan says. "They were looking for the room with money stacked to the roof. I said, `you've got to be kidding'.

"Every single cent that goes through Switched on Gardener is traced, tax paid on it, and every single stock item is tracked."

What they did find was a small bag of cannabis, less than 5g, at the back of a wardrobe which Quinlan says had been there for years and he had forgotten about.

He and many of his staff spent the night of the raids in the Auckland central police station cells. "Some of them I got to meet for the first time. If there were any more of us, we could have had a mid-year Christmas party."

The legal bill for defending Quinlan and his senior managers is likely to be enormous – sources say they will be lucky to get change from $500,000. Quinlan has hired QC Paul Davison, and vows to fight police for costs if he is acquitted. The battle lines have been drawn.

Brookbanks says winning costs will be difficult. "Courts do award costs sometimes, but you have to prove there was some bad or unfair behaviour on the part of police so that the prosecution was effectively vexatious or unjustified. It's a fairly high threshold."

Quinlan has had one small victory – the high court throwing out strict bail conditions that had required Switched on Gardener customers to provide photo ID and personal information. That hit the business hard for three weeks, but Quinlan says it is now almost back to full trading.

Quinlan makes no secret of the fact that he associates with the cannabis counter-culture and believes cannabis law should be reformed.

"He's very much a supporter of individual rights and freedoms and the responsibility that goes with that," Fowlie says. "He's very much about not having the government telling you what to do."

No one denies Switched on Gardener appeals to the home cannabis grower – the stores carry paraphernalia such as pipes and bongs and oversize roll-your-own papers, as well as little bags of lookalike herbs. But Quinlan dismisses claims the stores were the centre of the country's cannabis industry and claims only one person has been charged with growing commercial quantities.

However, police national headquarters told the Star-Times that, of the 152 indoor growing operations dismantled during the raids, 123 were considered to be commercial-level operations on the basis of having six or more plants, including 43 grows containing more than 50 plants each. At one house in West Auckland, 650 plants were found.

Fowlie says Operation Lime has not made an impact on the availability of the drug.

"The only people this has really inconvenienced is the small wardrobe home grower. The big guys were never shopping there, the Black Powers and Headhunters and independent operators – they go directly to the manufacturer and buy a box of light bulbs. They don't go to Switched on Gardener, they think they're too hot, they think they're being watched, which they were.

"We have not heard a single report of the supply changing or it being tight out there, and yet they say the've broken the cornerstone of the cannabis industry."

Norml member Stephen McIntyre argues that the police raids signal a "war on cannabis".

"What had been perceived by the cannabis culture in New Zealand as a degree of de facto tolerance towards home cultivation for personal use was suddenly peeled away to reveal a new level of hard-line, zero-tolerance policing of cannabis and cannabis users," he writes in the latest Norml News.

Former Green MP Nandor Tanczos sees parallels between the hydroponic raids and the "terror raids" in the Ureweras and elsewhere in 2007.

"It's similar to what I think happened in Ruatoki," Tanczos says. "Police thought they were into something really big, they genuinely believed that this [Operation Lime] was some big organised crime operation.

"They mounted a lengthy surveillance operation, spent huge amounts of money, realised when they were well into it that, actually... this was nothing like that, but by then had spent so much money that it was impossible to back out. You can't spend millions of dollars and then go `oh, there's nothing to see here'."

Quinlan says some police are "disgusted" at what they see as a waste of resources. He says they would have been better off going after methamphetamine manufacturers. "P's the major, mate," he says.

Detective Inspector Harry Quinn, who retired in 2008 after 37 years in the police, including a stint heading up the National Drug Intelligence Bureau, is one who believes police have got cannabis enforcement all wrong.

"The big guns in the police should be pointed at the drugs which affect people's lives and can kill people – that's not cannabis," he says.


SWITCHED ON Gardener stores have been around for 20 years, so why raid them now?

Fowlie says it is probably no coincidence the surveillance operation began two years ago, around the time Switched on Gardener began a TV advertising campaign which lifted its proverbial head above the parapet.

"I think their advertising on TV pushed the wrong buttons with certain cops, all it really takes is one cop to start the ball rolling," Fowlie says.

When assistant commissioner Rob Pope announced on April 27 that Operation Lime would "break the cornerstone of the illicit cannabis cultivation industry", the terminology did not surprise law reformists.

In 2007, the National Drug Intelligence Bureau had published a strategic assessment, titled "New Cannabis: The Cornerstone of Illicit Drug Harm in New Zealand". The paper concluded that cannabis was a harmful drug, that cannabis hospital admissions exceeded the combined total of admissions for opiates, amphetamines and cocaine, that the advent of advanced growing techniques had led to significant increases in THC content and that cannabis "has historically been and remains the cornerstone of illicit drugs in New Zealand".

Detective Sergeant Paul Tricklebank of the bureau told the Star-Times a recent growing experiment in conjunction with the ESR found that today's cannabis was stronger than ever, with THC levels reaching as high as 25%, compared to an average of 3% in the 90s.

Tanczos says he's been hearing that message for years. "I've talked to people from the 60s who talk about the Buddha sticks they used to smoke back then. Based on my own personal experience as well, there's stuff that's been around for a very long time that's very strong."

Tricklebank says from a police and health point of view, it's all about harm, with cannabis leading to around 2000 hospital admissions a year. And, he says, cannabis is a "stepping stone" into the illicit world.

"I hate to use the word `gateway' but I've never met a P-user who hasn't smoked cannabis." He says the police focus is not on cannabis users. "It's not police policy to go looking for users. We're looking for the cultivators, the middlemen, the gangs and the dealers."

But Quinn says too many police resources have been wasted prosecuting adult cannabis users, when the focus should be on going after those dealing to young people. He says the clear intent of the Misuse of Drugs Act when it was written in the 1970s was to differentiate the adult social user from the dealer pushing drugs to children.

"Police ignored that completely and dealt with all offenders in the cannabis realm exactly the same. I think that was a tactical mistake. The law in New Zealand and the law in Holland is almost identical – it's the manner in which law enforcement agencies enforce the law that is different in the two countries."

Quinn wrote a paper several years ago, for which he took considerable flak from his colleagues, in which he recommended issuing a caution to people caught with cannabis in the first instance, followed by a formal warning on any subsequent occasion and a prosecution only after a third offence.

In an issues paper released earlier this year, the Law Commission recommended a similar approach, but the government has already indicated it will ignore most of the commission's recommendations. The commission's final report is due early next year.

"I'm disappointed there is not someone in the police saying this is something we should be debating," Quinn says. "A lot of senior police don't want to touch this issue because it's a political time bomb, no politician is going to stand up and say we support drug use, it's going to destroy their careers.

"Look at Nandor Tanczos. His views on cannabis enforcement are almost identical to mine, but the public view of him compared to me is different simply because he also says he uses cannabis ... that's awful."

Tanczos says the way New Zealand is dealing with the cannabis issue is out of step with other countries, including the US, where President Barack Obama has said his administration will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users as long as they conform to state laws, and where voters in California will decide in November whether to legalise recreational cannabis use.

"There is a wave of reform going on around the world, I really fail to understand why our government seems to be unwilling to take the opportunity to do a similar rethink here," Tanczos says.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, whose "medical marijuana bill" was defeated last year, does not believe the hydroponic raids signal a setback for the law reform movement, as it encourages further discussion.

"It may well assist, because it does raise the question, what is the value of these operations to the wellbeing of the community? What is the harm caused by cannabis and is it worth this kind of police resource in controlling it?"

Quinlan, not surprisingly, agrees.

"Five hundreds cops on the morning of the raids. Two years of undercover work. You're talking about millions. For what, a little green plant?"

CANNABIS – NZ's drug of choice

Cannabis is New Zealand's third-most popular drug after alcohol and tobacco and is the most widely used illegal drug.

46.4% of New Zealanders aged 16-64 have tried cannabis at some time in their lives. One in eight Kiwis use it regularly.

Maori are more likely to have used it than other ethnic groups.

The black market for cannabis is estimated to have an annual turnover of $131-190 million.

From 2003-2005, police seized and destroyed an average of 164,600 cannabis plants a year. They claim the harm cannabis causes each year equates to $430m.

Cannabis is linked to more than $30m a year in hospital bills.

A Green Party bill aimed at legalising cannabis for medical use was defeated last year. The Law Commission has recommended allowing cannabis for medicinal purposes and issuing warnings to those caught with small amounts, but Justice Minister Simon Power says drug laws will not be softened under his watch.

Operation Lime's sting cuts deep

For Invercargill man Peter Stewart, pictured above, not being able to do hydroponics "is like Pavarotti being told he's not allowed to sing". Stewart's shop, Europa Hydroponics, was raided as part of Operation Lime. The courts have ruled he is not allowed to set foot in his store, so he is winding down the business. "It's ruined my business, ruined me," he says.

Undercover officers had visited his store about five times seeking advice on growing cannabis plants. He admits he had become "sloppy" over the 12 years since he started his business, giving customers advice on cannabis when they asked for it.

During the April 27 raids, police seized Stewart's copies of Norml News, the political magazine of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and a book on cannabis horticulture.

He was charged with supplying material, including Norml News, "capable of being used for... cultivating a prohibited plant, namely cannabis".

But Norml News has never been an illegal publication, despite police efforts to have it declared so. Documents obtained by the organisation under the Official Information Act show that, six days after the raids, police met with the Department of Internal Affairs, seeking a "serial publication order" that would make current and future copies of the magazine objectionable.

The secretary of Internal Affairs referred three copies of the magazine to the Office of Film and Literature Classification. The office ruled that Norml News was primarily for adult readers interested in cannabis law reform and has "social and political merit as a forum for these views". The magazines did contain some material designed to assist growers and users, and those issues were ruled R18.

Stewart, 50, says he pleaded guilty because he could not afford to fight the charges.

"My lawyer said it would cost five grand to go early guilty, but to defend it, a starting point of $20,000." He was sentenced to four months' home detention.

In New Plymouth, Reuben Wade, 25, is back working at Guru Gardener after pleading guilty in June to charges of supplying drug-related equipment – a book on how to grow cannabis and some fertiliser. An undercover officer had come to the store saying she needed to grow a couple of plants for her terminally ill mother for pain relief.

Although Wade's lawyer cried police harassment, entrapment is not a defence to such charges. Wade, who will be sentenced tomorrow, says he decided to take what was coming.

"The crime was committed. It would have been hard to argue the facts, in a court of law being grilled by a Crown prosecutor. The whole thing is a pain in the arse."

Dave Hodkinson of Whatawhata, near Hamilton, says Operation Lime has ruined his life. Police followed him home from the Hamilton Switched on Gardener store and discovered numerous cannabis plants, and firearms. "It was implied by the news services that I was a gun-toting psychopath hiding in a country house with a bunch of illegal guns," Hodkinson says. In fact, he is a fully licensed pest shooter.

"I lost my house, my income, all in one easy step, which was stopping at Switchies. The punishment doesn't fit the offence, there was nil damage to the community but the damage to my life is unfixable at this stage."

The experience has spurred Hodkinson to activism – he is now working for a cannabis law reform organisation.

Sunday Star Times