Suspended sentence for basketball player who grew cannabis in Offaly

“I thought I would have a big sentence so I'm very happy.”

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Suspended sentence for basketball player who grew cannabis in Offaly

Nicolai Cojuhari, caught by gardai at a cannabis growhouse near Birr

A PROFESSIONAL basketball player who received a suspended sentence for growing nearly €66,000 worth of cannabis in Offaly has spoken of his relief at being released from prison.

Nicolai Cojuhari, 28, who has dual Romanian and Moldovan citizenship, had been in custody since May 11 last when gardai searched a bungalow and garage in a rural area at Beggarstown, Birr and found a sophisticated cannabis growhouse.

At Tullamore Circuit Court today, Judge Keenan Johnson sentenced Mr Cojuhari to three years in prison but suspended the sentence for 10 years on condition the accused leave Ireland within 28 days.

“This morning I thought I would be going to the Midlands [Prison]. I thought I would have a big sentence so I'm very happy,” Mr Cojuhari told the Tullamore Tribune.

“And I want to go back to my country to see my wife and my mother.”

He had been in custody in Cloverhill Prison and Mountjoy and used the time to work in the kitchen and maintain his fitness.

“I'm a foreigner, so for every foreigner it is hard to stay in the prison but there are good guys everywhere.

“It's a good lesson for me in the future. I don't want to repeat it, I just want to forget all the jail, all the prison, and have a new life.”

A basketball international who once played against Ireland, he has been assistant coach for the Moldova Under 20 team and prior to his arrival in Ireland was playing professionally in Azerbaijan.

“Right now there is a war in Azerbaijan so I don't know what's happening there. But I have contact with them, I was in touch with them so I called them and asked them about what's happening there.”

The basketball season was suspended because of Covid-19 but he hopes to be able to resume his sporting career.

“I hope. Right now I'm in good shape. In the prison I work hard in the gym and I ate good there because I worked in the kitchen. I have to come back [to Moldova], practise and start the new life.”

He said he is looking forward to seeing his mother, a retired woman and single mother who worked for 35 years as a kindergarten teacher, and his wife.

The Circuit Court heard the maximum sentence for the offence of cannabis cultivation he committed was 14 years.

Judge Johnson said that taking mitigating factors into account, including his early guilty plea, his cooperation with the gardai, his previous clean record and the evidence that he was at the bottom rung of the drug operation, a sentence of three years was appropriate, backdated to when he went into custody.

The remainder of the sentence was suspended on condition he enter a €500 peace bond for 10 years and leave the State and not return for the duration of the sentence.

The court was told by Garda Helen Colleran that Mr Cojuhari was arrested following a search of a three-bedroom bungalow and garage at Beggarstown, Birr on May 11.

The garage was a fully operational cannabis growhouse, one of the bedrooms was being adapted for the same purpose and the intention was to adapt all the bedrooms.

A total of 55 mature cannabis plants were found and at €800 each they would be worth €44,000.

A black bag containing 1,091 grams of cannabis herb was also seized and its market value was said to be €21,822. In all, the cannabis was worth €65,928.

Garda Colleran told Kevin White, BL, prosecuting, that Mr Cojuhari made full admissions during six interviews and explained that he had travelled to Ireland; was picked up at Dublin airport and driven straight to the growhouse where he stayed and worked seven days a week watering and tending to the crop.

He had been told he would be paid between €3,000 and €5,000 when the harvest was finished and he told the gardai he planned to return home afterwards because he missed his family.

He had been told about the “work” in Ireland by a friend in Moldova and he knew it was “something to do with pot” but did not realise it would be such a big operation.

He was not paid for what he had done and he slept in a bedroom in the house, eating from food which was provided in the fridge.

Replying to Vincent Heneghan, SC, defending, Garda Colleran agreed that Mr Cojuhari would not have asked many questions about what he was doing because of fear.

Garda Colleran said it was suspected that a Lithuanian gang was involved in the operation. They would be far more sinister and the man was right to fear them.

The court heard the average wage in Moldova would be €200 or €300 a month but Mr Cojuhari earned €2,000 a month at basketball and was left without an income when the sport finished because of Covid.

Mr Heneghan said the accused was a man who played in matches which were televised in his home country and he was looked up to by children there.

He had been involved in sport from the age of 11, had studied for diplomas in university and had played basketball all over Europe.

His partner was described as a “fine basketball player” too and they had met through the sport.

Judge Johnson said it was accepted that the accused was at the lower rung of the operation and worked as a “gardener” but nonetheless he was enabling the proliferation of drugs which was a huge problem in Ireland.

It is wreaking havoc on society and while some believed cannabis is not as harmful as heroin or cocaine, the cannabis available now is much stronger than the past and research showed that between 5% and 7% of users develop schizophrenia.

He believed Mr Cojuhari had been “duped to a certain extent” and being remanded in custody after the search was a huge penalty on him and it was clear he had already lost a lot, including his reputation.