This is the second chapter of a series where I’ll examine cannabis cultivation in the Northern Territory of Australia from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. Most 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.
As I noted in the Introduction to this series, working out the what, where, who and how of cannabis cultivation in the Northern Territory more than forty years ago is no easy task. I’d previously reckoned on the late 1977 Wollogorang Station crop was the first major bust in the NT. That was until I was tipped the nod by a former NT Drug Squad officer that there’d been a crop grown at Batchelor sometime in 1976.
So, after a few hours trawling through the NT News on microfilm at the NT Public Library I found it. I’ll get to that shortly, but first, a little background about the small town of Batchelor.
Batchelor is a small-town-that-never-could about 100 kilometres south of Darwin just off the Stuart Highway. Following the very reluctant acceptance of responsibility for the NT in 1911 from administration by the South Australian government Batchelor was the site of a demonstration farm that lasted a few years until it was turned over to private hands as a cattle station not long after the start of World War One.
Not much happened around Batchelor until the mid-1940s when, along with many other sites across the Top End, Batchelor airstrip was developed as a major element in the World War Two defence of northern Australia and served as an important base for the Royal Australian, United States and Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Forces.
Post-war, the discovery of a substantial uranium deposit at Rum Jungle, on the headwaters of the Little Finniss River, resulted in the construction of a substantial mine and expansion of the Batchelor township 8 kilometres away. Uranium mining – the ore was used in both the UK and US nuclear weapons programs – continued until the mine was closed in the early 1970s. The mine site was poorly managed during and following the cessation of mining and remains one of the NT’s most toxic legacy mines.
Following the mine closure the township of Batchelor was developed as a site for the education of Aboriginal teachers’ aides, a purpose that continues to this day as an annexe of the Charles Darwin University. After NT self-government in 1978 many houses at Batchelor were sold to existing tenants in freehold.
Batchelor has always confused me. On the one hand it seemed an innocent enough place, shady and comfortable with cheap housing, a pub. general store, motel and a cheesy mini Bavarian castle and motel. On the way into town you pass an abandoned failed tropical forestry plantation and Johnny’s Zoo, also long-abandoned. The town is surrounded by nice country – apart from the obscenity of the Rum Jungle mine site – and serves as a backdoor “gateway” to the nearby Litchfield National Park.
For all of that I’ve always thought Batchelor had a darker side. Perfectly normal folks, attracted by a job at the college, cheap rent and a local friendly sub-culture of music, beer and good locally-grown dope, seemed to function pretty well for a semester or two. Then something seems to happen. Their trips to town would be less frequent and when they did come up for a weekend they’d be all cabin-feverish and working out how quickly they could get back. A trip to Batchelor to visit could turn into a display of insular small-townness I’d not seen since visits to Brisbane in the early 1980s. I’ve never worked it out and no-one’s been able to explain it to me but there was – maybe still is – something about Batchelor that turned perfectly good people some kind of mean.
In 1976 Darwin was still a wreck following the all but complete devastation wrought by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974. Much of the town was still under the control of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission and the population of the town consisted – in no small part at least – of carpetbaggers, hippies, worried locals who’d either remained through the storm or returned to an uncertain future and the straggled remnants of the Commonwealth administration.
As I’ve noted previously, Darwin has always been a haven for desperados, chancers, carpet baggers and those trying to run away from the dark shadows of a previous life. I’ll admit to being one of the latter when I turned up in mid-1984. From the long-lens-view of the populated south-east of the country, Darwin was an attractive bolt-hole, not least because it was about as far away as you could get from your southern ghosts. Not that there was any lack of opportunity for new troubles in the Top End.
Escape from drugs was a large part of the justification for many to escape to the Top End. But drugs were as freely available in the Top End – if not more so – than they were Down South. The local powers-that-be – understandably distracted by post Tracy reconstruction and the accompanying mayhem – were slow to realise the nature and scale of the problems around them and that would emerge over the next few years. Three examples of local busts by the two, occasionally three-man Darwin Drug Squad give some idea of the response by law enforcement at the time.
The first major importation bust – well, the first that was detected anyway – concerned a Filipino cadet officer in the merchant navy from the Ocean Carrier by the name of Billy Jordan, who in October 1975 was caught on-shore with 2.8 kilograms of cannabis and later with a further 13 kilograms on board the ship. In April 1976 the senior judge, Mr Justice Forster, sentenced Jordan to three and a half years with a one year non-parole period. Justice Forster suspected that Jordan may have been part of a large scale operation in which others may have been concerned and described Jordan as an intelligent young man doing well in the merchant navy and noting that he was likely to be deported after he had served his sentence.
A typical drug bust of the mid-70s was that of Trevor Albert Williams, from suburban Rapid Creek, who in June 1976 entered a plea of guilty to possession of 10 grams of cannabis found by police in a tobacco pouch resting on his chest while he was caught by them asleep at home. Williams told the Police he’d bought the drug for $25 at the Don Hotel (now The Cav) in downtown Cavanagh Street. Williams, who’d been fined $150 for the same offence in April 1975, was given 28 days to pay a $400 fine (around $1,800 in 2018 money) imposed by Chief Magistrate Kirkman.
In early July Chief Magistrate Kirkman was expressing his judicial concern at the “‘Astronomical’ rise in cannabis cases” before his Court in recent months, pronouncing, for less than obvious reasons at this remove, that the rise was “No doubt due to the dry season”.
Whether through political prescience or from intelligence already to hand, in late July 1976 the local NT News reported on widespread concern that abandoned airstrips in eastern Arnhem Land were being used by an international smuggling ring.
Sightings of light aircraft landing at night have been reported over the past months. Police fear the airfields are being used to smuggle out Australian fauna and bring in hard drugs fresh from South-East Asia. Although surveillance has been intensified during daylight hours, the fact that aircraft landing at night makes it almost impossible for smugglers to be apprehended … Meanwhile, a Federal Government committee has left Darwin more convinced than ever that a multi-million smuggling racket is going on in Australia’s far north … The committee decided to investigate illegal routes into the North following reports that smugglers had been flying into deserted airstrips with drugs, pornography and illegal migrants in exchange for rare protected birds, snakes and lizards.
Committee chair Queensland MP John Hodges said he was convinced that Australian authorities were only aware of “the tip of the iceberg” of a huge and “very well organised” smuggling racket.
“If a light aircraft is fitted with long-range fuel tanks it can fly into Australia, land on one of the deserted airstrips and be out again in one night.”
But the real surprise of 1976 came in early August when 31-year-old greyhound trainer, Mervyn Thompson of Knuckey’s Lagoon was busted with a cannabis crop just off the Batchelor Road at Coomalie Creek. Police alleged that Thompson had a crop of more than 2,200 cannabis plants, 1,000 of which were laid out in neatly plowed rows, the rest being in Jiffy pots and seeds germinating in a car hubcap.
It is unclear if at that time if there was a charge of cultivating cannabis that Thompson could have been charged with, as the only count he faced was for possession, to which he entered a guilty plea before Chief Magistrate Kirkman.
The NT News reported Police prosecutor Sergeant Kevin Maley’s submissions and his perhaps well-optimistic estimation of the value of Thompson’s cannabis crop:
Sgt Maley said that Thompson, who was watering the plants at the time, was arrested and taken to his house where he showed police a rotary hoe he had used “to get the plantation going.” He told police he was growing the plants to pay off a $3000 debt. “A healthy cannabis plant can produce 5 pounds of cannabis,” Sgt Maley said. “If every plant on the farm came to maturity the crop would have realised a couple of tonnes. “With the price of cannabis at $200 a pound, you would be looking at something like $800,000. Sgt Maley said that assuming some of the plants did not mature, or were unhealthy, the crop would nett at least $100,000 … This is the largest and first major cannabis plantation we have had in the Territory,” he said. “And in my experience it is the largest number of plants are seized.”
Thompson told the court he was “Sorry about the whole matter,” telling the Court he owed $3000 for a bore, his wife was expecting a baby and he had 12 greyhounds to keep.
Chief Magistrate Kirkman said that in a record of interview Thompson told Police he had spent $72 on watering cans, Jiffy pots and poison to start the venture. “I accept that you are now contrite, but this is an offence which will be discouraged at all costs by this court,” he said. “It is difficult to imagine a worse type of case.”
Chief Magistrate Kirkman sentenced Thompson to 9 months jail, but suspended it on his entering a $100 bond to be of good behaviour for three years. He also fined him the maximum pecuniary penalty of $800.
It would be another 12 months before another large crop would be found in the NT. That was the 1977 crop grown at Wollogorang Station in the Gulf country along the Queensland-NT border owned by a company in part controlled by Sydney businessman Bela Csidei, described during his eventual sentencing by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Forster as “the most inept [criminal mastermind] in history.”
But that is another story.
Next: Chapter 2 – The 1977 Wollogorang crop and Bela Csidei – the “most inept” criminal mastermind in history.