Police seized 68 marijuana plants, found growing in underground shipping containers.
Police seized 68 marijuana plants, found growing in underground shipping containers. Contributed

WHOSE POT IS IT? Neighbours' dispute over drug bunker

IT WAS meant to be their quiet, picturesque retirement home.

But a court has heard how a Fernvale couple claim they became involved growing marijuana underground with their neighbour.

Paul Ian Harris, 50, pleaded guilty to cultivating a commercial quantity of the drug by enhanced indoor means last week, when a jury was due to be empanelled for his trial.

But Lismore District Court has since heard an argument over the extent of Harris' involvement.

He was charged after a police raid on April 5 last year uncovered 68 plants being grown in buried shipping containers on the property of his neighbours, Gary and Maria Johnston.

On the day of the raid, the Johnstons denied any knowledge of the bunker or what it contained.

In subsequent interviews with police and in court, they acknowledged they were aware of the bunker and that they'd agreed to the illegal activity taking place.

"We were just having a cup of tea and a conversation arose around growing marijuana and I asked him what's the best way to grow ... and he said "down there"," Mr Johnston said.

He said this was the first he knew of what was buried just metres from their home.

The couple agreed for marijuana to be grown; Mr Johnston told the court this was out of "greed".

The Crown prosecutor alleged Harris was the person responsible for sourcing equipment including growlights and electrical cabling and exhaust systems and the plants.

Mr Johnston said he helped Harris at times when called on.

Harris's barrister, Ben Cochrane, argued his client had a merely advisory role.

Mr Cochrane said police attending the scene last April were "able to detect rapidly and easily, the presence of this cannabis growing operation", including "a powerful smell of cannabis".

He said Judge Dina Yehia should therefore accept Mrs Johnston's initial denial of any knowledge about the bunker or its contents was "a conscious and deliberate lie".

He told the court there were inconsistencies in the Johnstons' evidence and drew a comparison to Harris' similar 2010 set up, which got him a prior conviction and jail time.

"There's a qualitative difference in the approach taken to the cultivation, and the results of it," he said.

Mr Cochrane said this suggested the Johnstons having played a more significant role.

The Crown prosecutor disagreed, saying there were many similarities between the two bunkers.

He argued the Johnstons would not have had the requisite experience or knowledge to have been able to embark on such an endeavour without significant help.

The Johnstons were granted protection by the court to give evidence freely, without risk of prosecution for what they've revealed in their evidence.

The matter will return to court on Friday when a judgment on Harris' exact role is expected.