Switched on Gardener turns off to turning on

Businessmen facing prison time over charges related to dealing in cannabis gear start to clear their shop shelves in a 'massive logistical job' and vow to get out of selling legal highs and 'back to the garden'.

Peter Bennett (left) and Michael Quinlan will be sentenced next month. They face a maximum term of seven years in prison. Photo / APN
Peter Bennett (left) and Michael Quinlan will be sentenced next month. They face a maximum term of seven years in prison. Photo / APN

Two men facing lengthy jail sentences after a police cannabis-related bust at Switched on Gardener stores are clearing their shelves and promising to get out of the legal-high business.

Switched on Gardener's directors, managers and staff were arrested during a widespread raid under Operation Lime in 2010.

Following a nine-week trial last year, general manager Peter Bennett and owner Michael Quinlan were convicted of supplying equipment for the cultivation of cannabis.

On a visit to its Glenfield store this month, the Herald saw literature on how to clone plants, grow from cuttings and use hydroponic equipment displayed in a cabinet by the register.

But Bennett says the company is in the process of withdrawing many products and getting out of the legal-high business.

During the visit, the Herald asked for advice on what to include in a "Bob Marley kit" for a present. The shop assistant suggested an orange plastic "vase", a "tobacco grinder" and a packet of flavoured cigarette papers. The marshmallow flavour was his "personal favourite".

No ID was required to buy the items.

One of the most notable differences in the Glenfield branch, based in an industrial garage, is a sign at the counter which proclaims: "We don't sell pipes."

A man gripping a $20 note walked past the aisles of hydroponics equipment and extractor fans. "You after K2?" the Glenfield store assistant asked, before telling the man the shipment of the brand of "herbal high" wasn't due until Thursday.

Several versions of K2 and others known as "synthetic cannabis" were banned in New Zealand last year for containing analogue chemicals of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.

However, new varieties are being produced which are not covered by the ban.

Bennett said they had not sold the banned strain of K2 since October. They had sold out nationwide five times in November of the yet-to-be-banned version.

"I think you will find that the manufacturers are constantly changing the chemicals they use these days. Just another reason for us to get out of the legal-high business as well as the vases, etc, and get back to the garden."

Bennett said the range of smoking products the chain carried was being withdrawn and there had been no re-orders since December.

Five shops would no longer sell vases, grinders, blunt wraps and other similar products by the end of this week.

He said that the items were legal to sell.

"This is a massive logistical job. It is not as easy as it may sound to clear all our shops of these products and hundreds of thousands of dollars are involved so it has to be done correctly, but it is happening."

Bennett said the real problem was with other shops - such as dairies - selling the products.

He said he had recently seen a bargain shop selling packaged pipes with cannabis leaves on the packets.

"I thought I would test the worker and see if they were aware of the laws governing these products," he said. "So I asked to purchase a cannabis pipe. She passed me one and took my $8 ... That's when the law is broken, from what I understand," Bennett said.

That transaction highlights the grey area of law that allows Switched on Gardener to continue selling such products.

New Zealand Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell said it is illegal to import and supply cannabis and methamphetamine utensils.

But store owners are able to navigate around the law by saying their paraphernalia is used for legal herbal highs, not illicit substances.

Mr Bell said the law was a "farce", and wasn't often enforced by police as they had bigger fish to catch - those supplying the substances the smoking equipment is used for.

In 2011, the Law Commission recommended that it no longer be an offence to possess utensils for the purpose of using drugs.

Its report said there was a wide range of drugs that could be taken without the assistance of utensils, or with utensils that were widely and legally available, making the offence virtually irrelevant in many cases.

And criminalising the possession of utensils also deterred safe drug use, creating more harm.

Mr Bell said such utensils, such as bongs and vaporisers, made smoking cannabis less harmful and their accessibility didn't really make an impression on young people.

Using vaporisers, which heat up cannabis and expel its vapour, is less harmful than inhaling the pure smoke.

"I don't think it encourages use, but I think it's quite an interesting thing within the drug community. There's a culture where people compare their bongs and they get quite ornamental - it's kind of bong-worshipping," Mr Bell said.

"But they're not encouraging drug use as the people who are buying them are already users and are going to the shop to get what they were going to buy, rather than young impressionable people walking past the shop."

Mr Bell said the Switched on Gardener case was interesting because the stores operated for many years without police intervention.

At the Auckland District Court trial, the Crown argued the "whole ethos, the business model of SoG, revolved around cannabis".

The case against the defendants was that despite selling growing equipment which was technically able to be used legally, the firm sold such items knowing they were to be used for cannabis.

The Crown said the police investigation was begun when conversations undercover police officers had with staff and some managers proved that staff knew exactly what advice they were giving.

Quinlan and Bennett face a maximum of seven years in prison and will be sentenced next month.

The pair were acquitted of belonging to an organised criminal group.

Three others - business development manager Ricky Cochrane, distribution manager Andrew Mai and South Island manager Paul Barlow - were acquitted of all charges.

Crown lawyer Ross Burns told jurors in his closing address that Switched on Gardener 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, pipes, and equipment that enabled customers to grow the drug at home.

Defence lawyer Paul Davison, QC, said that while Quinlan and Bennett supported legalising cannabis, those beliefs stopped at the front door. He said if managers had known what was happening on the shop floor, they would have stopped it.

It's all legal, says owner

Mark Carswell, who owns Cosmic shops on K Road and High St, says everything sold there is above board and the equipment he sells is not for using illegal drugs.

Cosmic sells wooden pipes for $15. They share the shelf with "legal highs", including Salvia, known as Mexican tripping weed.

"I've been in the game nearly 20 years and I know what I sell. What I sell is completely legal. There is nothing illegal in that shop and those pipes are designed for herbal tobacco and if they weren't, a long time ago I would have been in trouble," he told the Herald.

Mr Carswell said he could "categorically state" that in his 16 years in the business he had not sold P pipes and never would.

The glass pipes Cosmic sells are used for smoking herbal tobacco and cannot be used for P or cannabis because the glass is too thick, Mr Carswell said.

No ID was required to buy a pipe when the Herald visited, but Mr Carswell said Cosmic is very strict about checking identification for buyers of R18 products.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 22 Jul 2014 22:39:29 Processing Time: 12ms