A group operating from a Sockburn dairy was dealing in “vast quantities” of synthetic cannabis, the Crown alleged as a six week trial began in the Christchurch District Court.
When their 13-month investigation ended, and the police searched a van, a house in Avonhead, and a Blenheim Road storage unit, they found synthetic cannabis with a street value of up to $4 million.
“The Crown says we are dealing with a major distribution network for synthetic cannabis into the South Island,” said Crown prosecutor Karyn South in her opening address at the trial of three men and a woman.
The woman, Fei He, was described as the “mastermind” by Miss South. She said the Crown did not accept He’s claim that the substances she was found with were legal “herbal” remedies.
The Crown said they were analysed and found to be psycho-active substances.
The sale of synthetic cannabis had been made illegal in May 2014. Fei He had sold it legally through her Sockburn Dairy on the Main South Road until then, and had a licence to sell it when the law was changed in 2013.
Licences and product approvals were all revoked by Parliament in May 2014, but Miss South said there were so many customers and the market was so lucrative that the group continued to sell it.
Police investigated the group in a surveillance scheme, Operation Sin, that went on for more than a year until May 2016. Searches found the synthetic cannabis in bags at the dairy, and found that Sui Jun Zhou was making deliveries of the drug.
The jury has been reduced to 11 members on its first day, but Judge Stephen O’Driscoll opted to continue the trial. He told the remaining jury members, “Please look after yourselves.”
On trial are Xiwen Miao, a 30-year-old chef, Sui Jun Zhou, a 34-year-old real estate agent, Fei He, 48, and Heng Fu, 35.
As the hearing began, the defendants faced various combinations of the 25 charges on the Crown charge list. It lists four charges of possession of psychoactive substances for sale, five of selling or supplying non-approved psychoactive substances, five of possession of the substances for supply, unlawful possession of a restricted weapon, firearm, and ammunition, and eight charges of money laundering.
When the charges were read one by one, and translated in Mandarin, Zhou pleaded guilty to charges of unlawful possession of a stun torch – a restricted weapon – as well as a shotgun and ammunition.
Only He, Miao, and Zhou are charged with laundering money from the sale of synthetic drugs, through money transfers and deposits, a loan, purchases of cars, and a property deal. They denied those charges. Hu appears on only one representative charge, of selling or supplying a psycho-active substance. A representative charges alleges the offence has been committed at least once.
Miss South began the trial by telling the jury how synthetic cannabis was made by coating the legal herbal tea product damiana with different flavours of psycho-active substances.
When Zhou was stopped by police in May 2016, he was arrested and police got an order to check his phone. They found an “evidential jackpot” in his phone – messages detailing his activities since October 2014.
That information led them to Miao’s house in Yardley Street, Avonhead, and they then followed Miao to a Blenheim Road storage unit. At the house, in a car, and the storage unit, police found 173kg of synthetic cannabis, which had a street value of between $3 million and $4 million.
Miao was also found with $142,000 in cash. The Yardley Street house was where the synthetic cannabis was being created and prepared for sale, Miss South said.
The trial is continuing with more of the Crown’s opening address on Wednesday.