Incredible inside story of massive drugs bust
TRUDGING through the swamp, rain falling and mosquitoes in plague-like proportions, the police are on the hunt for a marijuana grow site.
It's tough going, feet sinking into the marshy bog, clambering over logs to cross patches of water, hopping over fences.
Once there, the scene is almost ingenious. What's before us is a number of floating platforms. Sitting on top of those is a garden bag, with fertiliser and soil, where a number of cannabis plants are starting to grow.
It's a smaller site, but is the first hit during a four-day operation run in northern New South Wales to find and seize marijuana crops.
The Bulletin went behind the scenes on day one of the operation last week, gaining an insight into the lengths criminals will go to grow and hide their crops.
It's early on Monday morning. Officers from the drug squad and police are being briefed about the job ahead. They're being warned about the threat of traps, leeches, ticks and to keep an eye on their mates, as the dense bushland is easy to get lost in.
From there we quickly jump into our car and follow the officers. The first stop is just outside of Byron Bay, the swamp, where floating marijuana plants are found.
The next site, between Byron Bay and Lennox Head, is down a dirt road. There are bee hives. It's too thick to walk through so specially trained drug squad officers have to be winched down from a helicopter. They land in chest-deep water to another site that is floating on little platforms. They pull hundreds of plants, bundle them up and are winched out by the same helicopter. One of the officers later tells the Bulletin he saw a massive python swim by him.
Overall, the four-day sting nets 1015 plants of varying size, worth about $2 million.
The growers are brazen, these sites are not far from the public, in both Byron Bay, Lennox Head and around the Tweed.
Some go to great lengths to hide their crops, plants and equipment. Solar panels, fertiliser and other gear is left there as crops grow. Buds are pulled from the plants and they are left to grow again. Other than the hiking and the initial plant, it's not a lot of effort for high turnover and this is why the police are going so hard at it.
Detective Superintendent John Watson, commander of the drug and firearm squad, said the crims were becoming more adept at growing and hiding crops.
"They're finding isolated areas, using areas that are totally inaccessible to the average person," Supt Watson said.
"They are prepared to take measures that most ordinary people would not take, but having said that, New South Wales police have got the specialists and the capabilities that we're prepared to raise ourselves to meet the challenge.
"The trends are that criminals are becoming more sophisticated. They are acting in groups, rather than in isolation, so we are prepared to meet them head on.
"We've got some specialists here from our aviation support groups, some dogs and we've got some rural trained, specialist bush-trained police. We will use every resource that we can ... we are prepared to do whatever it takes in order to make the seizures.
"The exercise we are on now is a third phase of a three-part cannabis eradication program that we run annually. It's a cause we are definitely invested in, it means that these criminals can't make profit out of what we've got and they can't divert those profits into other crime.
"This program has been underfoot and in planning for the last three months. It's a rolling program that we have over a 12-month period and we've seen some results that show us that the program needs to continue.
"We know we have the capability to find these locations and the message is, 'don't do it, we are here regularly and we have programs underfoot that are intelligence driven and we are steadfast in our fight that cannabis is going to be eradicated'."
Tweed/Byron Police District Commander, Superintendent David Roptell said the annual operation was a successful strategy for reducing the availability of prohibited drugs in the local community.
"Last week, local police assisted drug and firearms Squad detectives as they targeted outdoor cannabis cultivation and remarkably seized over 1010 cannabis plants with an estimated potential street value of more than $2 million," Supt Roptell said.
"The start of this year has been particularly difficult for the northern region communities with the devastating fires and turbulent weather conditions.
"As a result, our farmers continue to do it tough, which makes operations like the cannabis eradication program so important.
"The last thing we need is organised criminal networks destroying parts of their property and attempting to make a money out of crops on stolen lands."
Detective Chief Inspector Brendon Cullen said there was definitely a connection between the cultivation of marijuana and organised crime.
"It's not only individuals trying to make an easy dollar," he said. "There are certainly crime groups and syndicates who are deeply involved in the cultivation, supply and distribution of marijuana.
"It's a lucrative enterprise and they don't care for two seconds about the impact it has on the community or individuals."
He said the drug was the most widely used in the community.
"It's not only the actual crime of cultivating it, it's the flow-on effect of the mental health issues we have in the community and the impact that illicit drugs have on individuals lives. We see the worst of that and hopefully by doing these operations, we may avoid someone having a major health issue."