Queenstown arrests in major cannabis syndicate bust

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Southern police have swooped on a sophisticated commercial cannabis operation believed to be linked to a multi-million dollar syndicate.

Five men – including two from Queenstown and one from Glenorchy – have been arrested today as part of Operation Canary, a four-year investigation into the illegal cannabis trade.

Police believe the high-level operation, where large cannabis crops have been cultivated in Queenstown and Western Southland, has been underway for at least 20 years.

At a press conference in Queenstown this afternoon, Southern District Crime Services Manager, detective inspector Steve McGregor says the men allegedly involved in the drug syndicate come “from all walks of life”.

A Queenstown man, 62, and a Glenorchy man, 50, have been arrested and charged with cultivating cannabis. Another Queenstown man, 55, has been charged with a representative count of possession of cannabis for supply.

A 42-year-old Invercargill man and a 23-year-old Northern Southland man have also been arrested on charges of cultivation of cannabis. A Dunedin man has previously been arrested in relation to the operation.

Over the past four years, police recovered 300 cannabis plants and identified a further 500 plants. Cops believe the syndicate has grown more than 1000 plants, with a conservative estimate of a potential yield of 400 pounds – which equates to a street value of about $4.5 million.

Most of the plants have been grown in remote parts of Western Southland but some have been discovered in the Wakatipu, in places like Queenstown Hill, McGregor says.

During the 2011-12 cultivation season (October-April), police located more than 90 pounds (41kg) of high-quality dried cannabis with an estimated street value of about $1 million. More than half of that haul was discovered in a recent search of a Kelvin Heights address, where police found 53lb of high-quality dried cannabis plant – with an estimated value of $600,000.

Police also intercepted a total of 23lb of cannabis – with a street value of about $250,000 – on two occasions as it was being delivered to Dunedin by a member of the syndicate.

“The people who make up this syndicate appear to be long-term, highly-organised growers who have been deeply embedded in the illegal drugs trade locally. Targeting their operations and disrupting their activities, I have no doubt, will have a very positive impact on our southern communities,” McGregor says.

Operation Canary has “made an important dent in the illegal activities of key players in the cannabis trade” in the southern region, he adds.

Further charges are to follow and additional search warrants are also planned. During today’s bust, seven firearms were recovered from the Glenorchy address. McGregor says the guns are from licensed firearm holders.

Police also plan to take action under the Proceeds of Crime (Recovery) Act.

“This operation is not only about targeting the illegal activities of people who operate in the illegal drugs trade, it is also about using the Criminal Proceedings (Recovery) Act to take aim at assets that these individuals accumulate as a result of their unlawful activities,” McGregor says.

About 30 police staff – including 15 Queenstown police – were involved in today’s bust.

Operation Canary follows two other major stings led by Southern police – Operation Time in May, relating to cannabis dealing and other criminal activity within Dunedin’s Mongrel Mob Notorious gang, and Operation Moses, which targeted methamphetamine supply into Queenstown. None of the operations are linked.