While Bega may be well known for its cheese, the Bega Local Court and District Court are also becoming increasingly familiar with drug offenders. The cheese may have put Bega on the map, but other, less legal farm produce has recently made Bega come under the police radar.
A string of cases earlier this year have uncovered significant clandestine laboratories in Bega producing cannabis.
Earlier this year a former Transport South Coast manager, Mr Bobbin had his case transferred to Bega District Court. He was charged with supplying a prohibited drug in a commercial quantity and supplying or knowingly taking part in a prohibited drug supply.
Just months ago, police uncovered an elaborate hydroponic cannabis manufacturing plant on a semi-rural property just outside Bega. Over 200 cannabis plants were seized at the scene.
In February 2014, a man came before Bega Local Court charged with cultivation of a significant quantity of hydroponic cannabis. The accused didn’t appear in court but entered pleas of not guilty to the charges.
The drugs had an estimated street value of $1.5 million. The Bega Cheese total revenue in the last financial year came in at just over $1 million, making the drug industry far more profitable than Australia’s iconic cheese.
This was not the only major haul of drugs uncovered in the Bega area. One month later, another discovery was made, following searches on other surrounding properties. Another 189 plants were seized.
Police searched Crown land surrounding the area and seized another 50 cannabis plants, and the following month, Bega police discovered more cannabis with a street value of $440,000.
Since January police have executed 14 search warrants in the Bega shire, and at least 16 people have been issued with court notices for a variety of drug offences, including the serious crimes of manufacturing and supplying drugs.
Since 2013, 60 people have been charged within the Bega area for drug related offences.
Penalties for the supply of a prohibited substance vary depending on the type of drug and the quantity, ranging right up to life imprisonment and a $550,000 fine.
Detective Sergeant Marks from Bega police has said that drugs have a big impact on the community and crime rates, such as break and steal offences, domestic violence and mental health issues.
But Bega Local Court is by no means the only courthouse hearing considerable numbers of drug cases.
Drug offences are growing NSW-wide, one of the few crimes statistics, along with fraud that has been on the increase, while many other areas have stabilised or decreased. Australians are amongst the highest recreational drug-using countries in the world. NSW accounts for almost half of the entire Australian performance drug trade.
According to the most recent report from the Australian Crime Commission, over 19 tonnes of illicit drugs were sized Australia-wide during the last two years.
In the 2012-13 period, 105 clandestine labs were detected by police and 62,120 arrests were made just in relation to cannabis Australia-wide.
The number of clandestine labs in Australia has more than doubled over the last decade, but there was a slight decrease in the numbers in 2012-13 from what it was in the previous year.
However it remains the second highest detection rate on record, and within NSW there was an increase in the number of laboratories detected, such as the one in Bega.
While the number of laboratories here making drugs has slightly decreased in the last year, a rise in importation is possibly more concerning. In 2012-13, the amount of cannabis detections at the Australian border increased by 36.4%. Globally, it is the most popular grown and used drug.
Just over 50% of total drug detections on cargo entering Australia from overseas came by parcel post, bringing with it crime, drug gangs and cartels. $2.7 billion worth of drugs were seized last financial year. It is clear that drugs are a very profitable industry.
However Detective Sergeant Marks is sure that other drug manufacturers and suppliers in the area will be caught – and that it is only a matter of time before other criminals will be facing Bega Local Court and District Court.