Ever wondered where the bulk of Australia's weed comes from? The answer is grow houses—family homes that are bought or leased by a syndicate, with each group running a number of properties simultaneously. A grow house is rarely lived in. Instead the bedrooms are converted into hydroponic nurseries watched by a rotating roster of weedsitters.
Grow houses generally pop up in nondescript suburbs with only the aroma and unkept yards to give them away. Sometimes snitches notice those red flags and alert the drug squad, which is what happened to one weed house in Rowville, about 45 minutes east of Melbourne.
I parked down the block but could smell it as soon as I got out of the car. There were a dozen police officers pulling big, bushy plants out of a house and spreading them over a driveway. "We didn't know if anyone was home," explains Sergeant Phil Goodburn. "We got here at about noon. The garage was locked, and there were shoes at the front door, so we weren't sure." He describes how they gained access in the way you'd expect—by surrounding the house and kicking the door in. Then, when they found no one home, they called the power company. "We don't touch anything until the place is electrically safe. A lot of these places aren't done by a qualified electrician, so they can be quite dangerous, especially with the amount of water around."
Sergeant Phil Goodburn.
The power company found an electrical bypass, meaning the house was pulling juice for free. This ran dozens of high-intensity-discharge hydroponic lights wired to supermarket timers, delivering light to around 100 plants 14 hours a day. The plants were in plastic pots filled with coconut fiber. The police first removed all the electrical equipment and then the plants, one room at a time.
Emptying the rooms
"This is our first dealing with this particular syndicate," says Goodburn. "We don't see a lot of this stuff out in the eastern suburbs, although it seems to be becoming more prevalent now. We had one a few months ago—360 kg in a factory with a monthly turnover of about $60,000. Each plant is valued at about $1,000 and this house here has over 100 kg, so that's about $100,000 worth. Because of the electrical bypass we don't know how long it's been running for. Perhaps another one or two crops apart from this one."
I wasn't allowed in the house without a search warrant, but I had free rein of the yard as the police carried out the plants. An onsite botanist officially declared them cannabis. Next they were weighed, tallied, and laid over the drive with yellow number cards to indicate the room they'd come from. Photos were then taken so court officials could personally count the plants. Last up, a final picture was snapped of the drug squad posing with their haul.
As you can see, a few of the guys were clearly mid-Movember, which worked great with the guns slung around their legs. They joked about beer o'clock and complained about the heat. Then I talked gardening with a woman who was arranging marijuana across the paving. "Tomato plants smell wonderful," she said. "But these give me a headache."
"I can't tell you how we found this place," said Sergeant Goodburn, "but the number-one thing is that people ring up Crime Stoppers and give information. We're hoping to make an arrest out of this. We've got a person in mind. We just need to catch up with them, although we presume they already know the crop has been raided." He explains that after everything is weighed, photographed, and bagged, the botanist writes up a certificate that's presented to the court. Assuming a suspect is arrested, his or her defense lawyer can then dispute the certificate, before a magistrate issues an order to destroy the evidence—which in this case is the 100 plants. Victoria Police have a designated drugs incinerator located in Werribee, a suburb that's also home to Melbourne's wastewater treatment facility. "They don't care about the smoke out there," says one of the Movembers. "It stinks enough already."
There's a month between seizure and the incinerator, with raids happening all the time. This raid was the second that day, with another scheduled for later in the afternoon. My final question for Goodburn is whether or not he gets a thrill from busting drug houses. "A thrill?" He asks. "No, it's hard work. All we do is investigate drugs but this is the hard bit. Ice is more prevalent and there's a lot of ice out there at the moment. This is a lower priority, but when it comes up, we have to do it."
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