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Southern Police today delivered a king hit to the illegal cannabis trade in Southland and Otago.
Police terminated Operation Canary, which targeted large-scale illegal commercial cannabis growing operations believed to be linked in a multi-million dollar syndicate.
Southern Police say the operation, in which they arrested five people today and have previously arrested another Dunedin man, is likely to have delivered a powerful blow to the illegal trade in growing and supplying cannabis into Southland and Otago. More arrests of others associated with this group are likely in the coming weeks.
These people are now facing a significant number of charges in relation to the cultivation and sale of cannabis, in what Police believe is a multi-million dollar illegal drugs trade operation that has been underway for at least 20 years. The five are described by Police as being `from all walks of life'.
Over four years as part of Operation Canary, Police have been targeting the large-scale cultivation of cannabis across the district, initially in Western Southland and Fiordland but more latterly in Queenstown Lakes.
Operation Canary was initiated in 2008 by Winton Police, who began investigating large-scale illegal cannabis operations and gathering information about growing plots in Fiordland and Western Southland.
The characteristics of these operations suggested that they could be linked, leading Southern District Police's Organised Crime Squad to investigate further growing activity in the Queenstown Lakes District.
"These investigations contributed to a picture that has uncovered an organised criminal cannabis growing syndicate, involving millions of dollars, operated by people from Invercargill and Queenstown. It appears that the operation had been ongoing for years, if not decades," said Southern District Crime Services Manager, Detective Inspector Steve McGregor.
"The syndicate is alleged to have been cultivating cannabis in a sophisticated and highly organised manner and on-selling it into Southland and Otago communities for millions of dollars," he said.
Over recent months, four people ranging in age from 23 to 62 from Dunedin, Queenstown and Gore have been arrested and face charges in relation to the sale or cultivation of cannabis.
After Police executed search warrants on key targets today, three of these people face further charges in relation to the cultivation and sale of cannabis. Search warrants were carried out in Invercargill, the Queenstown area including Glenorchy and in Northern Southland. Additional warrants are also planned.
A Queenstown man aged 62 and a Glenorchy man aged 50 have been arrested and charged with cultivating cannabis. Another Queenstown man aged 55 has been charged with a representative count of possession of cannabis for supply. The three will appear in the Queenstown District Court later today.
A 42-year-old Invercargill man has been arrested on charges of cultivation of cannabis and a 23-year-old Northern Southland man has also been arrested on charges of cultivation of cannabis. Both will appear today in the Invercargill District Court.
During the 2011/12 season as part of Operation Canary, Police located over 90lbs (41 kilograms) of high quality cannabis with an estimated street value of around $1 million. A further 6lbs was recovered in 2011, while the remaining 85lbs has been recovered this year.
Over the four-year period of the operation Police have recovered 300 cannabis plants and identified a further 500 plants. However Police estimate that the syndicate has grown in excess of 1000 cannabis plants over this time, with a conservative estimate of a potential yield of 400lbs and an estimated street value of around 4.5 million dollars.
On two recent occasions Police identified 23lb of cannabis with an estimated street value of nearly $250,000 that was delivered to Dunedin by a member of the syndicate. Police believe that this was destined for the illegal drug trade in Dunedin. Another warrant executed in Queenstown recently resulted in a haul of 53lbs of high quality cannabis with an estimated street value of nearly $600,000.
Police also intend taking 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 Proceeds (Recovery) Act to take aim at assets that these individuals accumulate as a result of their unlawful activities," Detective Inspector McGregor said.
Most of the cannabis grows identified have been located in fringes of bush in remote areas of Western Southland. Detective Inspector McGregor paid tribute to the excellent and tenacious work by local Western Southland policing staff, particularly Detective Sergeant John Kean, and the commitment of the Southern District Organised Crime Squad in uncovering 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," Detective Inspector McGregor said.
"There are substantial negative social and economic effects that flow through our communities because of these illegal activities. As well as the significant social harm, they operate on a black market and make virtually a nil economic contribution," he said.
"Operation Canary we believe has made an important dent in the illegal activities of key players in the cannabis trade in Southern, who have been operating on a significant commercial scale. It will have an important impact on reducing the harm that illegal drugs have on people who live and work in our communities," he said.
"As the Operation Canary investigation has evolved, it has been about building up the bigger picture of a sophisticated, highly organised illegal cannabis operation. It demonstrates our commitment to targeting the illegal drugs trade in Southern and our assurance going forward that Police's commitment of resources to tackle this issue is going to continue."
About 30 police staff have been involved in today's termination of Operation Canary. It follows on the footsteps of two other significant operations by Southern Police - Operation Time in May when Dunedin's Organised Crime Squad identified cannabis dealing and criminal breaches of trust charges related to the Dunedin Mongrel Mob Notorious Gang, and Operation Moses run by the Southern District Organised Crime Group in April, which targeted the methamphetamine supply into Queenstown.