An Italian tourist has argued in court that he was “trapped” in Australia by COVID-19, leaving him to take part in a major cannabis cultivation operation.
Florenc Gjona faced District Court in South Australia on Monday. The 39-year-old was arrested in July 2020 as part of a police investigation dubbed “Operation Hemp”. The operation seized over 600 cannabis plants and raided 19 homes across the state. Two other people were also arrested.
In total, police valued the 600 cannabis plants at over $6 million, and believe they were being trafficked interstate.
Prosecutor Corinne Harrison told the court this week that 209 of the seized cannabis plants were taken from Gjona’s home. She alleged that his two-storey house was turned into a “sophisticated” drug factory. This included 25 large cannabis plants on the upper floor and 146 seedlings on the bottom floor. A further 38 plants were growing in tents in the dining and living area. The plants were grown with hydroponics equipment.
Police also seized $29,000 in cash from Gjona’s car, which Harrison used as evidence that he played a major role in the cannabis operation. She was quoted in the Herald Sun.
Any suggestion he was ‘merely a gardener’ or someone who didn’t stand to benefit from his offending should be treated with scepticism.
Gjona pleaded guilty in court to knowingly engaging in money laundering, trafficking, and cultivating cannabis in a large commercial quantity. He faces a life sentence in prison or a $1 million fine.
However, he has told a psychologist that he only turned to cannabis after becoming “trapped” in Australia by COVID-19 lockdowns. He first arrived in 2018 on a three-month tourist visa but overstayed the visa by many, many months.
Gjona is due to be sentenced by Judge Adam Kimber. Prosecutor Harrison has also pushed to have Gjona deported back to Italy to his wife and children to serve his sentence.
It is unclear if the Italian tourist’s claim that he only grew cannabis after being “trapped” will be effective. Hopefully, South Australia police also learn the difference between hemp and cannabis, and name their next operation appropriately.