Drug busts: Two of the biggest in 20 years

By Alexandra Newlove

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Constable Andrew Hunter with samples after more than 10 hours in the bush hunting for cannabis plants.
Constable Andrew Hunter with samples after more than 10 hours in the bush hunting for cannabis plants.

Police have completed two of the biggest cannabis busts in Northland for at least two decades.

Both outdoor growing operations - one at Hokianga yielding 1188 plants and another at Pouto Peninsula with 1080 plants - formed part of the three-month Operation Dee. In total, 68,499 cannabis plants were destroyed, 124 people arrested and 41 firearms seized.

Constable Alan Macleod scans the bush at Pouto for cannabis plants.
Constable Alan Macleod scans the bush at Pouto for cannabis plants.

The smaller busts included a 36-plant operation buried under a Matapouri chicken coop.

Northland Detective Senior Sergeant John Miller said the two 1000-plus plant grows were the biggest he had seen in more than 20 years.

The results reiterate Northland's "cannabis capital" reputation.

"I'd be very surprised if [other regions] get anything anywhere near that," he said.

Ripping out of thousands of cannabis plants and discovering crops hidden in odd places was all in a day's work for police working the annual operation.

"They love it," Mr Miller said of his officers.

"A lot of it is the unknown ... It can be dangerous, but you're always finding associated crime as well."

Police recovered $109,000 worth of stolen property during the operation.

A particularly memorable discovery among the 14 indoor grows found was the Matapouri chicken coop bust.

"A few years earlier he [the grower] had dug it out with a digger, built an underground container, covered it over and put a chook house on top," Mr Miller said.

No chickens were present in the coop.

The dark side of the busts came where there were children at the raided properties, he said.

Police involved Child, Youth and Family after a two-year-old was found at an address that was also home to more than 50 morphine-compound pills and a number of syringes.

It was one of three CYF referrals made this year.

"It's not an environment children should be brought up in," Mr Miller said.

Dangers to officers included booby traps and possum traps protecting outdoor grow operations.

Operation Dee consisted of seven phases - three of which included the execution of 20 search warrants, while during others police flew over "traditional growing areas", spraying and killing as many plants as possible. Plants ranged in size from tiny seedlings to 3-metre whoppers.

When questioned about the most prolific areas, Mr Miller said: "I shouldn't say the entire Northland area, should I? The traditional areas tend to be west of Kaikohe, and the areas around Kaitaia."

Last year's operation netted just over 67,000 plants, up on 46,224 the year before.

However, the busts did not only target marijuana. A methamphetamine lab was also shut down, with 101.7 grams of the Class A substance seized.

"Labs have become more mobile and the crooks get better at hiding those sorts of things from us."

As the discourse towards marijuana use appeared to be softening in New Zealand, Mr Miller said he still believed the drug caused a lot of harm.

"I think cannabis causes more harm in our young people. Meth is well-documented as to the harm it causes users - but it tends to be more in adults.

"I think people start with cannabis and move on to the harder drugs," he said.

The Guardian Australia and New Zealand's Spinoff news site have recently reported there is a cannabis shortage .

"We've got a shortage? We might be doing some good then," Mr Miller said.

As for the growers themselves, Mr Miller said there was an element of resignation when officers busted in.

"We've had people who have grown for years ... comment to us that 'yes, I thought you'd come and get me one day'."

Factbox:

* Cannabis plants: 68,499

* Arrests: 124

* Warrants: 20

* Firearms seized: 41

* Indoor grow operations: 14

* Methamphetamine seized: 101.7 grams

* Meth labs: 1

* Morphine sulphate tablets: 56

* Tinnies: 35

* Dried cannabis head: 8kg

* Dried cannabis leaf: 5kg

* Stolen property recovered: $109,000

* Cash seized: $71,765

* Child, Youth and Family referrals: 3

* Infringement offence notices: 63

- Northern Advocate

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