This is the first introductory article in a series where over the next few months I’ll examine cannabis cultivation in the Northern Territory of Australia from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. Most of these articles are based upon recorded ‘busts’ of plantations by police and I welcome any information either about crops the subject of these articles or others that weren’t detected by police or proceeded to prosecution in the Courts.

Unsurprisingly for a country founded on theft, corruption and lies and with grog as a currency, Australians have always loved getting high. Alcohol has been a drug of enthusiastic choice since the First Fleet and in addition to our love of alcohol Australians have always been willing consumers of attitude-adjusting drugs.

Some drugs – opium for example – were for many years seen as racially-based but barely tolerated evils from which income by way of colonial taxes could be levied while other drugs, no less evil in effect, were legal and promoted as popular and reliable tonics.

Thus in the 1920s and 1930s Australian per capita consumption of readily available cocaine and heroin was the highest in the world. Tolerance towards these drugs diminished over time and, particularly after the second world war, Australian drug policy was largely dominated by a focus on law enforcement and criminal justice rather than as a health issue.

By the 1970s, notwithstanding hardening official policies towards illicit drug use, a range of factors – including the lingering effects of the social revolutions of the 1960s, the persistence of organized crime networks and their corrupt infiltration of amenable police and politicians, the use of Sydney as a rest and recreation city of choice for American forces serving in Vietnam and more – Australian illicit drug consumption and demand was rising to unprecedented levels.

As Alfred W McCoy noted in his seminal 1980 book Drug traffic: narcotics and organized crime in Australia there were very willing forces behind the increased supply, demand and consumption:

At every stage in the growth of Australia’s illicit drug trade during the decade of the 1970s organized crime was heavily involved. To the extent that any small group can be responsible for any major social change, it is accurate to say that organized crime created Australia’s illicit drug traffic.

The so-called “hard” drugs – heroin and cocaine – were by necessity imported into Australia by increasingly sophisticated criminal networks that had either corruptly compromised the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies or caught them very much on the hop. But cannabis could be grown locally and, in many instances the same groups involved in the importation and distribution of the harder drugs took the opportunity to develop new or expand existing supply networks.

From the mid-1970s it was apparent that the Riverina district in south-western New South Wales had become the centre of Australian cannabis cultivation on an industrial scale, with crops often grown by Italo-Australian market-gardeners and citrus-growers who willingly turned their horticultural skills to the new cash crop.

Cannabis cultivation, and the enormous wealth that flowed from it, soon attracted the keen attention of the media and law enforcement. By the mid-1970s, as McCoy notes in Drug traffic:

The first corroboration of local suspicions came in early 1974 when police discovered two marijuana plantations in the Griffith area, among the first in the State. Acting on information received in February 1974, police raided two farms, each with about five hectares of marijuana under cultivation and arrested the proprietors presented to the courts as ‘poor, hard-working farmers’, Barbaro and Scarfo were convicted and given prison sentences, reduced on the grounds of first offence to fines of only $500 and $250.

In October 1975 Donald Mackay, a local Liberal Party leader, small businessman and staunch anti-drug campaigner, was tipped off about a large cannabis plantation at Coleambally, south of Griffith. Mackay flew to Sydney and passed the information to NSW Drug Squad officers urging an investigation, which they declined to undertake.

The next month Mackay received further information about the Coleambally crop and again passed it onto the Drug Squad. This time they acted and on 10 November 1975 police raided the property, discovering a massive cannabis crop totaling 32 hectares. Further investigations led to the arrests of five Calabrians, including Francesco Sergi, a brother-in-law of Antonio Sergi, about whom we’ll hear more in due course.

On the same day in early March 1977 that the trial of those caught at the Coleambally plantation began, NSW police raided another crop near Euston, 300 kilometres west of Griffith. Four Calabrians – who McCoy noted were linked to ‘the same people’ involved in the Coleambally plantation – were arrested. Although Mackay was not an informant in the Euston raid, there was a flurry of newspaper publicity linking his name to the latest bust.

Four months later Mackay disappeared and his body has never been found.

Within weeks NSW Premier Neville Wran called a Royal Commission to investigate the drug trade in the state. Led by Commissioner Sir Edward Woodward with counsel assisting Mr William Fisher QC, the Woodward Royal Commission held its first hearing on 10 August 1977, three weeks after Mackay’s disappearance in Griffith.

McCoy is scathing of the conduct and outcomes of Woodward’s commission, particularly for its concentration on cannabis cultivation rather than distribution networks.

Despite an impressive amount of digging and a great mass of detail about the financial transactions of the suspect cannabis growers, Mr Fisher failed to corroborate his earlier claims of a powerful, nationwide Italian Onorata Societa. Instead, he had come full circle back to Griffith where he found a small network of Calabrian peasant farmers cultivating cannabis at the bottom rung of the distribution ladder … After two years of investigation, 321 days of hearings, 565 witnesses, thousands of pages of transcript and expenditures running over $2 million, Mr Justice Woodward’s Royal Commission had simply failed to come up with a satisfactory analysis of drug distribution in New South Wales … We are given no information about the identity of those groups handling the statewide and interstate distribution of Griffith’s tonnes of cannabis.

While the unwelcome attention of authorities tempered cannabis cultivation in the Riverina region – at least for a while – there were plenty of other cultivators elsewhere in the country willing to take the very big chances to meet the ever-growing needs of wholesalers and consumers.

For the Riverina-based growers, increased law enforcement and media attention on the activities of cannabis cultivators in the south-east meant that they needed to get out of the business or to change how or where they grew their crops.  Large-scale cultivation soon spread beyond the Riverina region.

Some, particularly those based in and around Adelaide, turned their eyes and operations northwards to the Northern Territory, a jurisdiction regarded by many, perhaps naively, as a relatively lawless jurisdiction of boundless possible opportunity.

We’ll never know with any certainty just how many crops were grown in the NT from the late 1970s through to the late 1990s but through my research over the past couple of years I’ve located reports – sourced from court reports, personal reports, NT Police material and of course contemporaneous media accounts – that indicate the Northern Territory was a hot-spot for cannabis cultivation during that period.

From these sources I’ve collated a tentative total of at least 40 crops grown across the NT – from Tennant Creek in the south to Bathurst Island in the north, from Wollogorang Station along the Queensland border to Keep River in the far west. Some were multiple crops, where successive crops were grown at or near a single location by the same cultivators, others were one-off attempts either nipped in the bud (excuse the bad pun) or located and busted close to or post-harvest.

Some came to the attention of police by chance or – for the growers – bad luck, others were located by diligent police work, by the dumb actions of growers or, in one instance at least, by an old Aboriginal man hunting kangaroos. The nature and scale of crops in the NT ranged from a couple of mates growing small – though still valuable – crops through to thoroughly professional operations supplying established distribution networks in the south.

It is safe to say that the reports I’ll give over the coming months most likely won’t come near to a full list of crops grown in the NT, and I’m confident that many crops – perhaps most – were never located by police or the growers prosecuted.

In part for that reason but also because I’d welcome any further information about NT crops that managed to sneak under the radar, I invite anyone with knowledge of or information about cannabis crops in the NT from the late 1970s through to the late 1990s – whether as a police officer, consumer, grower or student of law, order and the media – to please get in touch. You can contact me – and I will maintain any confidences required – at [email protected]


Next: Chapter 1 – The 1978 Wollogorang crop and Bela Csidei – the “most inept” criminal mastermind in history.