OUTRAGE AT JAILING OF INVALID
Wheelchair-bound and brain-damaged beneficiary Neville Yates is back in prison as accusations fly over him becoming a pawn in the cannabis debate.
Christchurch District Court Judge David Holderness yesterday sentenced Yates to five months jail for growing cannabis, which the sickness beneficiary uses to relieve the chronic pain he has endured since being hit by a truck 30 years ago.
As the judge acknowledged that Yates would find jail hard, he had a swipe at the cannabis activists in court who had played a part in Yates's doomed defence of medical necessity.
They included Blair Anderson, who stood for the Christchurch mayoralty on a policy of repealing the prohibition on cannabis and who acted as in-court assistant to Yates.
"You were not greatly assisted by (Anderson) and other members of the group who were, plainly, pro-cannabis advocates," the judge said.
"There was, in reality, no defence. If you had pleaded guilty promptly, the sentence was likely to have been no more than three months jail."
Yates's family hold fears for his safety in prison. While serving a previous jail term for cannabis cultivation in 1999, Yates had been bullied and beaten up by other prisoners, who stole his food. On one occasion, his prosthetic leg was stolen.
Yesterday's sentence provoked violent scenes, with abuse yelled at the judge and angry protesters forced from the court building by security staff.
Outside court, Anderson denied he was using Yates as a pawn for his campaign against cannabis laws.
"The judge is wrong. I take absolutely no blame," he said.
"I had the good intention of helping a guy who had difficulty putting his case before the court."
Anderson had previously helped Yates on a defence that relied on the Magna Carta, but he described Yates yesterday as "defiantly standing up against the system yet again".
Another supporter, Irinka Britnell, was in tears as she spoke of Yates's devastation at the jail term.
"I think what the judge said was really unfair," she said.
"This is a public issue in the public domain and it's in the public interest."
Since being found guilty, Yates had abandoned the tactic of running his own case with Anderson's assistance. Instead, he enlisted lawyer Tony Garrett, who told the judge that Yates may have been under the influence of the cannabis campaigners.
Garrett, prosecutor Craig Ruane and the probation officer who prepared the pre-sentence report had all supported a non-custodial penalty.
But the judge said that was unrealistic because of Yates's three previous convictions for cultivating cannabis and a total of nine for cannabis-related offending.
"I don't overlook that a further prison term will be difficult for you and I have regard to your physical difficulties and your significant problem with pain," he said.
"However, in my view, to impose a non-custodial sentence in this case would be to suggest that there is some special category of cannabis-cultivation offenders - those who use it for medicinal purposes.
"There is no such special category and particularly not for persistent offenders. You do not appear to have accepted, despite the prison sentence imposed in 1999, that cultivation of cannabis remains an offence which carries a significant sentence.
"If you go on cultivating cannabis ... you'll find that longer and longer terms of imprisonment may well follow."
The judge said that notwithstanding Yates's campaign to change the Misuse of Drugs Act on medicinal cannabis use, possession of the drug remained illegal and there was no prospect of home cultivation being legalised.
Given that this cultivation and the offence in 1999 had been at Yates's house, home detention was not appropriate, he said.