Dope grower with rare disease fined

Last updated 12:58 26/03/2014

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A chronically ill cannabis grower with a "sophisticated grow room" has escaped a heavier penalty after a Nelson judge said there was little choice other than to fine him.

Mark Robert Heatherbell admitted in the Nelson District Court yesterday charges of procuring and possession of cannabis and cultivating the Class C drug, which lawyer Mark Dollimore argued was for his client's own use to relieve symptoms associated with a chronic disease.

Heatherbell, a 56 year-old sickness beneficiary, suffers from a rare form of encephalitis [acute inflammation of the brain] as a result of contracting Lyme disease - a tick-borne bacterial disease - after travelling in Nepal, the court heard.

Prosecutor Ruth Thomas said cannabis seedlings and a "sophisticated grow room" were found in Heatherbell's Brook St home after a police search last month.

Mr Dollimore described it as an "unusual case", and while there was no dispute with the summary of facts, Heatherbell suffered from an "incredibly sad" and life-threatening health condition triggered by being bitten by a tick. The encephalitis had occurred after the bacterial infection, and Heatherbell used cannabis for pain relief. He also suffered constant nausea and fatigue as a result of his condition, Mr Dollimore said.

Heatherbell was also being treated privately with the growth hormone SciTropin A, which cost about $300 a week.

A letter from Nelson MP Nick Smith was presented to court. He had earlier tried to help by writing to Crown agency Pharmac on behalf of Heatherbell, seeking its support in funding the treatment.

Dr Smith applied for individual approval for the growth hormone, through Heatherbell's Nelson doctor and a Wellington specialist.

Dr Smith said in the letter that if the treatment stopped, Heatherbell's condition would deteriorate and the underlying condition would take his life.

"Dr Smith has tried to get him help and was sympathetic to his battle with Pharmac that is still ongoing," Mr Dollimore said.

He said Heatherbell had not been able to work since falling ill, and sentencing him to community work would "set him up to fail" because he would not cope. Even the trip to court yesterday had set back his health.

Judge Paul Whitehead said it was "very clear" he suffered chronic fatigue.

"It's an unusual day that I fine someone on a cultivation charge. The reading of the medical report and letter from Dr Smith makes for sad reading. Your ill health is of such a nature your life is at risk," Judge Whitehead said.

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He said while Heatherbell had resorted to using cannabis it was still not legal in New Zealand. He made an order for the destruction of the cannabis plants and seedlings.

He was convicted and fined $500 for cultivation and convicted and discharged on the possession count.

- Nelson

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