A man who helped mastermind and organise New Zealand's biggest ephedrine importation - a whopping 200kg of the drug - has been sent to prison.

Quanfu Huang was today jailed for seven years for possession of ephedrine, a class B controlled drug, for supply.

Huang and three other men were arrested last year after a joint police and Customs investigation dubbed Operation Penny thwarted their attempt to bring the dangerous drug into New Zealand from China.

The trio were arrested after 80 cardboard boxes arrived in Auckland in April last year from China.

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Quanfu Huang in the dock at the Auckland District Court at sentencing for possession of ephedrine for supply. Photo / Anna Leask
Quanfu Huang in the dock at the Auckland District Court at sentencing for possession of ephedrine for supply. Photo / Anna Leask

Inside the boxes were bundles of documents and papers - but suspicious Customs officers inspected the package and discovered concealed cavities that contained a whopping 200kg of hidden ephedrine.

Ephedrine is a drug used to cook methamphetamine.

Police said the find was the largest amount of ephedrine ever smuggled into New Zealand and it was estimated to have a street value of $150 million.

Previously, the largest seizure of ephedrine was about 95kg which was concealed in a shipment of children's toys in October 2015.

Huang, 33, was initially charged with possession for supply and importing - but the second charge was dismissed today when he appeared before Judge Jonathan Down in the Auckland District Court.

He pleaded not guilty but a week before he was set to go on trial, admitted the possessing for supply charge.

His co-offenders either pleaded guilty or were found guilty at trial and have all been sentenced to prison terms.

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams of the National Organised Crime Group said the penalties imposed by the court reflected the gravity of offending and social harm an ingredient like ephedrine caused once it was made into methamphetamine.

"The frequency and amount of seizures are an indication of the drug problem we have in New Zealand. Methamphetamine is a destructive drug that wrecks lives, breaks down whanau and negatively impacts on our community."

It would take enforcement and a whole-of-Government approach, along with education to reduce demand and victimisation caused by the drug, he said.

Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry said a two-pronged approach saw offenders in New Zealand as well as those involved in its export offshore caught.

"Customs' intelligence identified this as a risk shipment, and we were ready to scrutinise it upon arrival. It was a complex concealment and the attention to detail and our officers' approach led to a significant seizure and prosecution."

Huang and three other men were arrested last year after a joint police and Customs investigation dubbed Operation Penny thwarted their attempt to bring the dangerous drug into New Zealand from China. Photo / Supplied
Huang and three other men were arrested last year after a joint police and Customs investigation dubbed Operation Penny thwarted their attempt to bring the dangerous drug into New Zealand from China. Photo / Supplied

Judge Down explained today how the group were caught.

Once Customs officials intercepted the 80 boxes at the border and discovered the ephedrine they organised a controlled delivery.

All but 10g of the ephedrine was removed and replaced with a placebo.

The delivery then took place as planned.

After being granted surveillance warrants which allowed police to track cars and record conversations and electronic messages covertly - the men were watched.

And after the drugs were delivered and collected, police nabbed the offenders.

At the time Detective Inspector Scott Beard, of the Organised Crime team, said the circumstances of the drug bust seemed "like something out of a movie".

"The reality is there are families out there who are being destroyed by meth, kids who are growing up in contaminated homes and innocent people who are victims of serious crime as a result of this drug. It is a truly awful drug."

Ephedrine is a more pure drug than pseudoephedrine, another ingredient which can be used to manufacture meth.

The drugs were concealed in piles of paper sent from China. Photo / Supplied
The drugs were concealed in piles of paper sent from China. Photo / Supplied

At sentencing today Judge Down heard that Huang was a man "of good character" and had no previous convictions.

He said the offending was "reasonably sophisticated".

"The potential profit for this operation was very significant indeed," he said.

He said he had to denounce the offending and deter Huang and others from "being involved in the trade of ephedrine".

"The purpose of importing ephedrine is to facilitate the manufacture of methamphetamine - a dreadful scourge on our society," Judge Down said.

He accepted that Huang did not act alone, and that there were people in the operation "higher up the chain" than him.

But they were based in China and the role he played in the New Zealand arm of the import was significant.

Crown Prosecutor Scott McColgan sought a starting point of between 12 and 13 years in prison for Huang, with a minimum term of half the sentence.

However defence lawyer Stephen Bonnar QC sought a lesser starting point with no minimum term.

Judge Down said parity in sentencing was important and as none of Huang's co-offenders had a minimum term set, he would not get one either.

He sentenced the man to 7 years in prison - discounted from a starting point of 11 years for his guilty plea, lack of previous convictions and time spent on electronically monitored bail.

Huang was supported in court by his partner, who acted as an interpreter for him.

As he left the court he said "thank you very much" to his lawyer and was led to the cells.