Police warn yesterday's 46kg cocaine seizure at Tauranga shows smugglers are trying to expand the market for the illegal drug in New Zealand.
A five-month investigation tracking a trans-national gang ended when police and Customs officers arrested four men and seized cocaine worth around $20m that had been smuggled on a commercial ship.
After several smaller busts, the investigation had discovered the cocaine shipment would be offloaded near Tauranga, and when the ship arrived from Chile the cocaine was retrieved from a hidden compartment. Two Australians, one Croatian and one Serbian face charges of importing cocaine and possessing the drug for supply.
Police assistant commissioner of investigations Richard Chambers said intelligence suggested demand for the Class A drug was increasing.
Last year, authorities intercepted 35kg of cocaine.
Mr Chambers said cocaine seizures, and arrests for importing drugs, were on the rise.
"There are people out there who will attempt to establish a market here in New Zealand," he said.
Drug Detection Agency general manager Glen Dobson, said a 46kg seizure indicated that there was a demand.
The company provides drug testing for companies. "We don't see a lot of cocaine in either New Zealand or Australia, we see bits and pieces," Mr Dobson said.
While the overall use of cocaine in workplaces remained low, he had seen a jump in the last two months, and that mirrored what was happening in the United States.
"It's not a surprise that we're seeing it, because we often follow American trends."
However Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell doubted the seized cocaine was destined for this country - or that there was increasing demand in New Zealand.
Mr Bell said the drug is usually transported from South America to Australia.
"If this haul was intended for the domestic market - and I'm still sceptical about that - then this is represents quite a major bust," he said.
"Usually large shipments of cocaine travel through New Zealand to another destination rather than New Zealand being the final market.