Nearly 80 consignments of cannabis were imported into Northern Ireland in a multi-million pound international trafficking operation, it was alleged in Belfast High Court on Friday.
Prosecutors disclosed that 16 people have been charged in connection with the suspected racket, linked to a factory growhouse discovered in Italy.
The scale of the distribution and Continent-wide investigation was confirmed as two men accused of being part of the gang involved were refused bail.
Xin Chen (23), and Zhenchao Chen (34), both with addresses at Annadale Flats in Belfast, each face charges of importing and conspiracy to supply herbal cannabis.
They were arrested as part of an inquiry involving the PSNI, National Crime Agency and the Italian Carabinieri force.
Officers carried out searches at up to 18 properties in Northern Ireland earlier this year, with addresses in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter among those under investigation.
In March police seized three packages containing more than 8,000 cannabis plants with an estimated street value of £4.25 million, the court heard.
Letters of request
International letters of request were sent from the PSNI to their Italian counterparts seeking an exchange of information.
At an earlier hearing it was claimed that £15 million worth of cannabis had been sent to Northern Ireland in a period stretching back more than a year.
Xin Chen is further charged with possessing and transferring criminal property, while Zhenchao Chen is also accused of cultivating cannabis and having Class B drugs with intent to supply.
Their lawyers argued they should be released due to the slow progress in the case.
Barrister Joe Brolly described the Italian administrative system as "a quagmire", and rejected prosecution claims the defendants could flee or interfere with the investigation.
Ruling on the applications, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan pointed out that both men are allegedly linked to "a very sophisticated and highly successful, potentially, operation to import huge quantities of herbal cannabis into Northern Ireland".
He added: “The prosecution suggest that the methodology was that herbal cannabis was sent from Italy to Northern Ireland and that some 78 consignments worth several million pounds were successfully imported by the operation.”
Sir Declan acknowledged the difficulties in a cross-border investigation, with 16 people currently charged.
Denying bail to both men, he said: “The complexities of the investigation means there’s clear concerns about interference.”