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Ballyclare man accused of running UVF-linked cannabis farms 'has gambling debts', court told

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Some of the suspected cannabis seized by Officers from the Paramilitary Crime Task Force investigating the criminality linked to the East Belfast UVF, following two searches in north Belfast and Ballyclare. Credit: PSNI

Some of the suspected cannabis seized by Officers from the Paramilitary Crime Task Force investigating the criminality linked to the East Belfast UVF, following two searches in north Belfast and Ballyclare. Credit: PSNI

Some of the suspected cannabis seized by Officers from the Paramilitary Crime Task Force investigating the criminality linked to the East Belfast UVF, following two searches in north Belfast and Ballyclare. Credit: PSNI

A man accused of running two cannabis farms linked to the UVF had bad gambling debts, a court has been told.

Jason Johnston was arrested on Friday by officers from the Paramilitary Crime Taskforce (PCTF) investigating the drug dealing operations of the crime gang based in east Belfast.

He was then charged with six offences after two cannabis growing rooms were found at his home in Ballyclare and premises in Belfast.

A police officer told Belfast Magistrates’ Court on Saturday the operations were for the commercial supply of the class B drug, with a total of £700,000 worth found at the two properties.

They found both plants and cannabis is various stages of drying in preparation for its street sale but they did yet know if the drugs were destined for Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

Johnston’s solicitor told the court his client had no criminal record or had even come to the attention of the police before Friday’s raids.

When questioned the investigating officer said the operation was intelligence lead and that Johnston (45) did not appear to have any of the trappings of wealth associated with this scale of drug dealing.

His solicitor said that about five years ago Johnston amassed gambling debts and was suffering from severe depression which drove him towards those suspected of controlling the operation.

He said that when he was questioned at his home on Craighill Park in Ballyclare, Johnston handed over keys to premises on Dargan Crescent in the docks area of Belfast where more of the drug was found.

The officer said in total 67 plants were seized at the property along with 16kg of herbal cannabis while at his home they found 10kg of the drug.

Asking for the father-of-two to be released on bail his lawyer said he suffers from asthma and that the investigation is only in the early stages and up to a year before it is likely to be dealt with at court.

However, District Judge Mark McGarrity said he agreed with police concerns about the risk of further offending and potential interference with witnesses.

He remanded Johnston in custody to appear again on June 26 via videolink.

Belfast Telegraph