A Tauranga retiree busted with a large cannabis crop at his home worth tens of thousands of dollars has narrowly avoided being sent to prison.
A frail-looking John Banks Price, 82, appeared in the Tauranga District Court yesterday for sentencing after earlier pleading guilty to one charge each of cultivating cannabis and possession of cannabis for supply.
Before doing so, Judge Philip Connell withdrew a charge of selling cannabis after the police prosecutor agreed there was no evidence of any actual sales being made.
Judge Connell described Price as a "sophisticated and clearly skilful" grower of a large cannabis growing operation which was found at his Ohauiti Rd home on June 20.
Price was the mastermind behind the purpose-built, large-scale and well-equipped operation.
According to the 11-page police summary of facts, he told police he had been growing and stockpiling cannabis head material with the intention of selling it to pay for a wheelchair and a $100,000 back operation.
During a search of his property, police found 364 well-nurtured cannabis plants and multiple growing operations in a tent, a large shed and a ceiling cavity, as well as more than 2.7kg of cannabis head material.
Police said the value of the cannabis found in the ceiling and library was between $21,000 and $30,000.
Inside a large shed, police found partitioned-off walls and doors creating three separate growing areas, and a professionally made growing tent set up with LED lights on a timer.
Also in the shed were nine large labelled "mother plants" being used to take cuttings to grow further clones, and a hydroponic growing system containing 61 plants.
In the ceiling cavity above the library in the house were two further cannabis growing rooms accessed by a drop-down ladder and 2891 grams of dried cannabis leaf.
Police seized $23,459 in notes found in the lounge.
Police today submitted that based on estimated yields and an estimated price per ounce, Price's cannabis could have yielded between $69,000 and $156,000 a year if sold on the black market.
Police prosecutor Sergeant Helen Murphy told Judge Connell that an agreed sum of $45,000 would be forfeited by Price in recognition of his significant offending.
She said a sentence starting point of three years' prison was appropriate before any discounts were allowed for personal mitigating factors and the guilty pleas.
A sentence of home detention was not opposed if it got within range, Murphy said.
Price's lawyer Rachael Adams argued that home detention was a sufficient punitive sentence given her client's age, "significant health issues" and the $45,000 forfeiture.
Adams said Price was "acutely hard of hearing" and a letter from his GP who had treated him for 20 years and also from community organisations which helped him, attested to his frailty and the extra care he would need if sent to jail.
"It is accepted Mr Price is skilled in horticulture and he does not shy from the fact that it was his intention to sell the cannabis he grew to pay for an operation," she said.
However, Adams said he was "simply an elderly man with significant abilities at growing" but it was "not the most sophisticated operation the courts have seen as it
lacked any organised criminal structure".
Price had been stopped before any sales could be made, and police accepted the $23,549 found in the house was not profits from sales of cannabis, she said.
Judge Connell questioned how frail Price was given the effort it would have taken to set up the extensive cannabis operation and the financial gains he would have made.
Adams said Price had been "very motivated" and it was "a long and slow process" after he became frustrated that he was not being given priority on the public hospital waiting list.
She said given Price's age and ill-health, a prison sentence would have "very severe and disproportionate" consequences on him.
Adams also urged Judge Connell to take into account that Price had to borrow the rest of the $45,000 privately because orthodox banks would not lend him the money.
"Mr Price has very limited income and there is already a significant mortgage over his house which equates to another significant hardship if he were to lose his home."
Judge Connell told Price the starting point must be three and half years' prison given the huge gains he would have derived for this "sophisticated" growing operation.
"I have to consider whether or not you could survive imprisonment and while Community Probation tells me the prison can handle and treat your health needs, I also have a consider these matters on a humane basis."
Judge Connell revealed Price's other medical difficulties related to some kind of cancer condition, hypertension and heart disease.
The judge said he accepted, given the supporting medical evidence and other documents before him, that Price would suffer extreme hardship if sent to jail.
Judge Connell said he did not consider any of those submissions were "disingenuous" and he was satisfied a sentence of eight months' home detention was appropriate.
He also ordered the forfeiture of $45,000 to the Crown, which included the $23,459 seized by the police. He ordered Price to pay the balance of $21,541 within three weeks.
Outside court, Price told the Bay of Plenty Times through his lawyer he was "very pleased, very relieved and very grateful" that Judge Connell had been merciful.