Sam Boyer is a police reporter for the NZ Herald.

Billionaire once caught with dope in Auckland dies in US

A drug-smuggling American billionaire nabbed at Auckland Airport with cannabis in his luggage and more aboard his luxury vessel has died at his home in the United States.

Peter Lewis - who is reported to have donated $40 million to $60 million towards drug reform in the United States - died from apparent natural causes in Coconut Grove, Florida, on Sunday, aged 80.

The insurance magnate made headlines in 2000 during the America's Cup, when he was busted at the airport with 33g of cannabis.

A search of his luxury converted tug, Lone Ranger, uncovered a further 47g, as well as 56g of cannabis resin.

Lewis was charged in the Otahuhu District Court. After agreeing to donate US$53,000 to a drug rehabilitation centre, he was discharged without conviction by Judge David Harvey, who also granted him permanent name suppression.

As Lewis walked free, Judge Harvey told him to enjoy the Auckland fresh air: "Our harbour is a wonderful place and I'm sure you're out there enjoying it. Don't let anything get in the way of you and the atmosphere."

After the hearing, his lawyer, Marie Dyhrberg, warned the Herald reporter covering the case of dire consequences if anything was published to indicate the billionaire's identity.

"Don't try anything cute because we'll sue the arse off you, and he has the money to do it," she said.

The Herald fought the suppression order, and in August that year, following an eight-month battle, the Court of Appeal overturned it.

Ms Dyhrberg said when her client's name secrecy was revoked that Lewis was "disappointed", but he decided against challenging the appeal court's decision.

He admitted that smuggling the drugs had been an "absolutely stupid thing to do", she said.

In the 13 years following his Auckland arrest, Mr Lewis became an outspoken campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis, which he said he had used medicinally to control the excruciating pain he suffered following a partial leg amputation in 1998.

He told Forbes magazine in 2011 that he supported drug reform because cannabis laws were "outdated, ineffective and stupid".

Last year, Mr Lewis signed up to the Giving Pledge, a charity organisation founded by fellow American billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, to which some of the world's wealthiest people have promised to give at least half their fortunes.

In September this year, Forbes magazine estimated Mr Lewis' net worth at US$1.25 billion.

- NZ Herald

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