14 Charged in Australia's largest $40M cannabis bust

Police have arrested and charged 14 men and seized over $40 million worth of cannabis as part of an ongoing investigation into a criminal syndicate behind the large-scale cultivation and supply of cannabis.

In November last year, detectives from the State Crime Command’s Drug and Firearms Squad, assisted by the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission (ACIC), established Strike Force Harthouse to investigate the cultivation and supply of cannabis across NSW.

Since the inception of Strike Force Harthouse, investigators have located and dismantled six rural properties being used for cannabis cultivation, charged 19 people and seized cannabis worth more than $60.2 million.

As inquiries continued, detectives uncovered three properties in the Taree area being used for the large-scale cultivation of cannabis.

Following extensive investigations, Drug and Firearms Squad detectives with the assistance of officers attached to the Manning/Great Lakes Police District, Northern Region Regional Enforcement Squad (RES) and the Dog Unit, commenced a two-day operation at a property at Minimbah about 7am last Thursday (22 October 2020).

A crime scene search warrant was executed where 5593 cannabis plants were seized along with 39 pounds of dried cannabis, worth a combined total of $16.9 million.

Police arrested six men, all Vietnamese nationals, including a 31-year-old permanent resident, a 41-year-old who is unlawfully in Australia, a 23-year-old and 27-year-old both currently on student visas and a 38-year-old and a 44-year-old both currently on bridging visas.

The group were taken to Taree Police Station where they were all charged with cultivate prohibited plant (large commercial quantity), supply prohibited drug (indictable) and participate criminal group contribute criminal activity.

The following day (Friday 23 October 2020), investigators executed two simultaneous crime scene search warrants at properties at Melinga and Moorland and seized 7760 cannabis plants.

A further eight men were arrested, also all Vietnamese nationals, including a 31-year-old man permanent resident, three men who are unlawfully in Australia aged 24, 23 and 22, two men on student visas aged 22 and 27 and two men on bridging visas aged 24 and 23.

The group were taken to Taree Police Station where they were all charged with cultivate prohibited plant (large commercial quantity), supply prohibited drug (indictable quantity) and participate criminal group contribute criminal activity.

All the men arrested over the two-day operation, were refused bail and appeared at Taree Local Court where they were formally bail refused to reappear at the same court on Tuesday 19 January 2021.

The matter of each man’s visa status has been referred to the Department of Home Affairs.

Drug and Firearms Squad Commander Detective Superintendent John Watson said the seizure was one of the most significant in Australian history.

“Over the two days, 14 offenders were arrested, and more than 13,000 plants were seized with an estimated street value of over $40 million,” Det Supt Watson said.
“As far as cannabis seizures go, we have not seen one of this size since the 1970’s.
“The biggest difference is in 1975 outdoor crops were seasonal, so criminal groups were restricted to one crop a year, whereas these grow houses are weather controlled enabling the harvest of new plants every 12 weeks or so.”

Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said the operation has successfully dismantled a number of organised syndicates.
“This remarkable work by the NSW Police Force will keep millions out of the hands of criminals, which will go a long way to keeping our communities safe,” Mr Elliott said.
“We know these criminal groups have no regard for the community and the NSW Government will continue to support NSW Police to shut down their operations at all levels.”

State Crime Commander Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith said that the illicit activities of organised criminal syndicates are rarely restricted to a specific crime type.
“In an operational assessment by the ACIC, criminal syndicates like the one we will allege is behind this operation, will take the funds made from large-scale cultivation in cannabis and reinvest it into other criminal enterprises such as money laundering, manufacture of prohibited drugs like ‘ice’ and immigration fraud,” Assistant Commissioner Smith said.

“The significance of the arrests and seizures made under Strike Force Harthouse, stretch far beyond the cannabis trade, it impacts the revenue made by these criminal groups to invest in other organised crime that places the community’s safety and way of life under constant risk.
"This is why the disruption and dismantling of organised crime is such a priority for NSW Police and we will continue to be dogged in our pursuit of those involved to put them before the courts,” Assistant Commissioner Smith said.

Investigations under Strike Force Harthouse are continuing.