More than $14m of cannabis seized in Bay sting

By Kelly Makiha, Sonya Bateson -
DRUG STING: Police seized more than 14,000 cannabis plants in the Bay this season.PHOTO/FILE
DRUG STING: Police seized more than 14,000 cannabis plants in the Bay this season.PHOTO/FILE

Cannabis plants with a street value of more than $14.6 million have been netted in the Bay in this year's cannabis and crime operation.

The annual operation, which ran from January to April across the Bay of Plenty, resulted in more than 14,000 cannabis plants and nearly 10kg in dried cannabis being found - the second best result in nine years.

The operation used helicopters and fixed wing aircraft with help from the Royal New Zealand Air Force to spot and destroy cannabis crops growing throughout the season.

On the ground, local police officers were tasked with acting on tip-off information and conducted search warrants.

Sixty people were arrested for drug offending in the Bay of Plenty, 10 guns were seized and stolen property valued at $32,000 was found.

Detective Sergeant Mark Van Kempen said "tinny" houses, where cannabis was sold, were still prevalent and it might surprise some people that drug houses were not confined to low socio-economic areas.

"Some of these houses are run by gangs but some of them are also just your normal families and they can be from anywhere."

The police's "bread and butter" was a result of tip-offs and it was thanks to residents noticing suspicious behaviour in their neighbourhoods that they could make so many arrests, Mr Van Kempen said.

Signs of a drug house included vehicles coming and going at all hours of the day and night and staying for just a few minutes and lots of people walking in and out of a house, he said. Detective Inspector Craig Scott, the officer in charge of the operation, said the operation mainly targeted those who cultivated and dealt cannabis.

"Commercial cannabis cultivation cannot be looked at on its own, it has links to much wider crime. This year police placed a strong emphasis on seizing the assets gained from drug dealing and assets used to assist and enable the criminal activity.

"As a result of this there is in excess of $4 million worth of assets currently under investigation or restraint following a court order. This includes land, houses, cash and vehicles."

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said if the seizures had any real effect New Zealand's drug use would not consistently remain high.

"Enforcement has done nothing to change the levels of drug use in New Zealand. We have quite a simple view that this money would be better spent on higher quality drug education in schools and treatment for people with drug problems.

"We have to get to the point in New Zealand where we recognise that it's simply throwing taxpayers' money down the hole when it has zero impact."

Mr Bell said he doubted the police operation would net major growers, who would use highly sophisticated indoor setups.

Ken Evans, Tauranga spokesman for Sensible Sentencing Trust, said these numbers showed drug use was "rampant" in the Bay of Plenty. "There's a huge market going on in the Bay of Plenty for cannabis growing. It's obviously a profitable thing to do. It appears from the evidence that this is something that is rampant in the Bay and the people who are involved in growing it are snubbing their noses at the law.

"Equally, you're not likely to get caught, or you wouldn't have 60 people growing cannabis. Obviously, the chances of getting caught are low and the deterrent in terms of sentencing must not be working. If they caught 60, there's another 260 that don't get caught."

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller said cannabis was an illegal drug for a reason.

"It harms and impairs people's judgment and healthy lifestyle. For me, if a drug is illegal, you shouldn't take it."

Mr Muller said he had an open view to medicinal use of cannabis following evidence of its effectiveness and rules for its use, but would not support wholesale legalisation.

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