Man in court over cannabis factories found in UVF probe

Cannabis plants found by police in north Belfast and Ballyclare during an investigation into the East Belfast UVF. Credit: PSNI

A man has appeared in court charged in relation to cannabis factories found in Belfast and Ballyclare during a police investigation into criminality linked to the East Belfast UVF.

Cannabis plants worth £435,000 were found in north Belfast, while a further haul worth more than £200,000 was found during a follow-up search at residential premises in Ballyclare.

The operation was carried out by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, Jason Johnston, from Craighill Park in Ballyclare, appeared in court via video-link from police custody.

The 45-year-old father-of-two has been charged with cultivating cannabis, possession of a Class B drug and possession with intent to supply.

The court heard how the charges arose after two raids – one in the Dargan Crescent area of north Belfast and the other at Johnston’s home.

A detective told the court he believed he could connect Johnston to each of the offences, and that it was the police case that the accused was “involved in the commercial supply of cannabis”.

The court further heard that police did not know at this stage whether the market for the drugs was “domestic or foreign”.

The officer added that Johnston wasn’t “abiding by coronavirus lockdown” as he was “servicing two sites and watering both sites”.

Under cross-examination from Johnston’s defence solicitor, the detective agreed the defendant had a completely clear criminal record and that police had previously “no knowledge” of Johnston.

The solicitor told the court the accused had been “prevailed on to become involve” after suffering severe depression and having “accrued very considerable gambling debts”.

District Judge Mark McGarrity refused bail and remanded Johnston into custody, adjourning his case until 26 June.