Hard News by Russell Brown


Switched on Gardener: to what purpose?

The most obvious conclusion out of yesterday's verdicts for the owner and managers of the Switched on Gardener retail chain is that the police need to revise their idea of what constitutes an organised criminal group.

As they had in the case of the Urewera defendants, police brought the charge of Participation in an organised criminal group against these defandants. And again, they were singularly unsuccessful in getting a jury to convict. In the Urewera case, the jury could not reach a verdict; this time, all five defendants were acquitted of the charge.

Two were convicted of lesser offences and three, after a lengthy (nearly five years) and expensive investigation involving the use of covert recordings, undercover officers and searches of 35 businesses and more than 100 homes, were found not guilty of all charges. Although the two men convicted still face jail, it is a meagre result.

On the face of it, the law actually takes a fairly broad view of what constitutes participation in an organised criminal group. It is tempting to suppose that juries will simply not have it on in a case like this one.

A number of employees of Switched On Gardener and businesses that dealt with Switched on Gardener were also charged, some of them with selling magazines -- High Times and Norml News -- that are sold without impediment elsewhere.

The question that has to be asked now is: to what purpose was this all done?

In April 2010, Police Deputy Commissioner Rob Pope claimed Operation Lime would "break the cornerstone of the illicit cannabis cultivation industry." Then-Police minister Judith Collins also weighed in, declaring that "the message to those who manufacture and sell drugs in our community is that the Government and the police are determined to shut down your activities, and will use every tool at their disposal to do so."

By that measure, Operation Lime has been a humiliating failure. Fourteen branches of Switched On Gardener continue to trade, as they had done for years before the investigation. If there was an interruption of any kind to the illicit supply of cannabis, it went unnoticed.

The chief effect of the whole project has in fact been the way it enabled the police to push boundaries in quite alarming ways. Officers virtually made up their own rules in setting initial bail conditions that required SOG to record the names and images of customers and supply them to police. One judge who rejected this condition described it as "excessive" and an "unnecessary intrusion" into the public's personal affairs. The condition was eventually removed by Judge David Harvey for all defendants.

It is hard not to see the work of the police here as on a continuum with the deeply troubling actions of officers before the death of medical marijuana advocate Stephen McIntyre. They both look capricious and arbitrary.

Some employees of SOG and other retailers certainly acted in a fairly loose fashion -- others seem to have been virtually entrapped by undercover officers. The general orientation of SOG was never obscure. But it was and is perfectly possible to go there for quite legitimate reasons. (Disclosure: I have shopped at SOG once -- for fireworks. I had my children with me.)

If there is one clear lesson from Operation Lime, it is this: that a rethink of the law around cannabis might do something to prevent police from spending millions of taxpayer dollars on actions that harm the liberties of all of us. It seems worth considering.

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