Jail looms for Switched On Gardener duo

By Media, APN News

The Switched On Gardener stores, including the Tauranga store, were an "Aladdin's cave" for cannabis growers - and its owner and general manager face jail time after being found guilty of possessing and supplying gear for growing the drug.

Owner Michael Quinlan and general manager Peter Bennett will be sentenced in February on the charges they were found guilty of, but they and three co-accused were all found not guilty of belonging to an organised criminal group.

Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes opposed bail for Quinlan and Bennett on the grounds that jail was "inevitable", but Judge Gus Andree Wiltens allowed it. "These gentleman will need to get their affairs in order" before sentencing, he said. They face up to seven years' jail.

Outside court, the pair's lawyer, Paul Davison, QC, said their families were devastated. "They defended the charges because they believed they were not guilty and the verdicts are a disappointment to them."

Mr Davison said Quinlan and Bennett would have Christmas to "take on board" the verdicts and contemplate their sentences.

During the police investigation, undercover officers saw staff smoking cannabis, and others willing to sell seedlings and the finished product.

More than 25 staff, including an area manager and the operations manager, have been convicted of drugs charges but the Crown said the drug offending went right to the top.

In his closing address, Crown lawyer Ross Burns said the organisation was designed to make money from selling equipment for cannabis, and the employees were encouraged and assisted to commit offences.

Despite staff talking about tomatoes and pumpkins, the company's motif was a stylised cannabis leaf, it sold pro-cannabis literature, bongs, and equipment that enabled customers to grow the drug at home.

Fan filtering systems also allowed growers to hide their illegal operations from their neighbours and passers-by, Mr Burns said.

"All of [the items] can be used for other things. But there is only one thing they can all be used for - to grow and consume marijuana. The way in which the shops were set out, like an Aladdin's Cave for the cannabis culture ... no one, no matter how they try to distance themselves from the offending, could have failed to realise what was going on."

Mr Davison said that while Quinlan and Bennett were supporters of legalising cannabis, those beliefs stopped at the front door. "The way the company operated did not permit or allow any illegal activity. There was far too much to lose."

He said if managers had known what was happening on the shop floor, they would have stopped it.

During the nine-week trial, the court heard recorded conversations between undercover agents and Switched On Gardener staff at the firm's 16 shops.

The three acquitted of all charges are business development manager Ricky Cochrane, distribution manager Andrew Mai and South Island manager Paul Barlow.

Last night, Mr Mai's lawyer, Hugh Leabourn, said he believed the police had laid the more-serious charge of belonging to an organised criminal group to "make up the numbers" because it required three or more defendants.

"To put him [Mr Mai] through that was unfair."

Mr Cochrane's lawyer, Matt Dixon, described the charge as "a bit of a nonsense".

Both men still work for Switched On Gardener.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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