New Zealand Grow Stores Busted in ‘Cannabis Crackdown’

New Zealand police have shut a chain of home garden supply shops called Switched On Gardener that they allege form part of the backbone of the country’s illegal cannabis industry.

All 16 branches of the chain were closed after employees allegedly sold drugs, cannabis plants and growing equipment and offered cannabis-growing tips to undercover officers, deputy police commissioner Rob Pope said today.

The closures were part of a major crackdown on the drug that has resulted in raids on 35 gardening businesses across New Zealand and the arrest of some 250 people, including employees, managers and company directors.

Some of those arrested were charged with selling drug-growing equipment, including 600-watt light bulbs, fertilizers including one called Budzilla, soil test kits, insect sprays, and magazines on cannabis, Mr Pope said.

The Switched On Gardener chain, which advertised on nationwide television, mainly sold garden supplies and equipment to home gardeners.

In New Zealand it is illegal to manufacture or sell equipment knowing it will be used to grow or make drugs.
More than 100 commercial cannabis growing operations allegedly linked to the businesses were found and dismantled during the operation.

Police said dried cannabis was found in at least one Switched On Gardener shop, while LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and firearms were seized by search squads from some other premises.

“We’ve got strong evidence of its (Switched On Gardener’s) complicity in supplying equipment for cannabis growing on a sophisticated scale,” Mr Pope said.

The national gardening chain would not have turned a profit if it hadn’t been knowingly supplying equipment and advice to cannabis growers, he noted.

Offenders can be sentenced to a maximum of seven years in prison for cultivating cannabis in New Zealand, while supplying the drug can attract a maximum sentence of 14 years. Public campaigns to decriminalise cannabis so far have been unsuccessful.

– Article from The Associated Press.

Garden store reopens under strict terms

by Rachel Tiffen, New Zealand Herald

Customers at a garden store accused of selling hydroponic gear for cannabis growth will be forced to hand over identification, contact details and their date of birth.

But Michael Quinlan, director of Switched on Gardener, said he planned to appeal the bail conditions applied in the Auckland District Court yesterday.

He was one of 15 staff members who were remanded until next month.

The store is among 58 businesses hit in a mammoth police clampdown, called Operation Lime, after employees allegedly sold undercover police drugs, plants and growing equipment.

Yesterday, Auckland police swooped on a 43-year-old man who had just flown in from London and another six people were arrested nationwide – bringing the tally of arrests to 257.

Eight firearms were also seized, some of which were military-style semi automatic rifles, as well as methamphetamine, Ecstasy and LSD.

Deputy Commissioner Rob Pope said this was in keeping with the “scale of the tentacles of organised crime” in New Zealand.

“While this operation has focused on cannabis, it is concerning that the level of involvement of criminal activity covers a range of wider offending,” he said.

It has emerged that gardening stores allegedly involved are allowed to stay open for business with a number of arrested staff already bailed and free to work.

Mr Quinlan said Switched on Gardener would be open today, but conceded staff would be quite tied up with meetings.

Of the bail conditions he said: “What are we? A police state?”

Mr Quinlan said a “little old grandma” coming in “for a bag of potting mix” did not deserve to be interrogated and anticipated other garden stores would follow suit and appeal.

He said staff had received “a huge amount of support” from customers and the general public.

The Herald can now reveal the names of the six other Auckland stores. These are Hydroponic Wholesalers Ltd, Headquarters, Grown & Brew, Growing Undercover, Easy Grow New Lynn and Easy Grow Manukau.

Detective Inspector Stu Alsopp-Smith, of the Auckland metro crime operations service, said stores could remain open as police would not “impact on a legitimate business”.

But under bail conditions, anyone purchasing from those stores had to produce identification and strict recording procedures had to be followed.

“Staff will be required to prove the purchaser is the same person depicted in the ID,” said Mr Alsopp-Smith.

“But of course the inference being that these bail conditions should not adversely affect the business if customers purchased the hydroponic stuff for legitimate reasons.

“If you are going to set up a big hydroponics cannabis grow you’re probably not going to be overly comfortable giving all your details.”

Mr Alsopp-Smith said it was still too early to say how much drug equipment had been seized but results “pan Auckland” were 22 arrests, five hydroponic set-ups, a shotgun, “sacks of cannabis and a lot of personal quantities of cannabis”.

Throughout the operation officers had unearthed a lot more than those five “hydroponic grows” and carried out raids, he said.

“Otherwise the cannabis would have been grown, harvested and distributed on to the market while we were still collecting evidence against all principals without them realising what the bigger picture was,” he said.

“Some were probably just thinking they were unlucky they got snapped.”

Purchase conditions:

* Name, address, contact number of purchaser.

* Type of identification and serial number.

* Date of birth of purchaser.

* Description of article and serial number or other unique identifier.

* Name and signature of seller, date of transaction.

Copies of sales records to be kept for police.

– Article from New Zealand Herald.