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Kiwi visitors escape cannabis convictions

Tuesday 14 February 2023 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Court, Crime, National


Kiwi visitors escape cannabis convictions
The defendants, both New Zealand citizens from Te Anau, were stopped at Rarotonga International Airport as they were about to join a family holiday on February 5. Pictured is Rarotonga International Airport arrival area before biosecurity. Cook Islands Pocket Guide/23021342

A visiting Kiwi couple with young children escaped cannabis importation and false declaration convictions.

Kingi Ture Otene and Anna Louise Sturley appeared in the Criminal Court at Avarua on Monday.

They were accompanied by their two children and sat in the public gallery as the Crown and defence discussed the case. 

The defendants, both New Zealand citizens from Te Anau, were stopped at Rarotonga International Airport as they were about to join a family holiday on February 5.

A summary of facts says Otene suffers from back pain and was prescribed 10 grams of medicinal product by Dr Ruaraidh Ellison at the Fiordland Medical Practice on January 23. 

On Friday February 3, Otene’s brother Damon Otene arrived at Rarotonga International Airport.

He spoke with a customs officer and asked whether he could bring medicine into the country. 

When the officer asked to see the medication, he said that he left it in New Zealand.  

The customs officer advised that medicine needs to be declared on the arrival card and a doctor’s prescription is also required.

A statement from a biosecurity officer, who was within earshot of the conversation, was presented to the court.

It formed a basis for the defence, as the biosecurity officer said they had overheard cannabis mentioned in the conversation.

The customs officer did not recall cannabis being mentioned in the conversation.

On Sunday February 5, the defendants and their young children arrived in Rarotonga and were directed to customs after declaring they had excess tobacco products. 

Sturley also declared she was carrying goods on behalf of another person, and when questioned, Otene advised she was carrying his medication, and Sturley produced a copy of a prescription for medicinal cannabis. 

A plastic container containing 5 grams of dried cannabis material was then produced by the defendants.

The customs officer advised medicinal cannabis cannot be brought into the country as it is prohibited.

A senior customs officer then confirmed cannabis is a prohibited/restricted drug and that an approved authorisation is required. 

A baggage search was undertaken and a cannabis pipe was discovered in a hair dye box.

The defendants were asked about the pipe and Sturley said it was used for drinking alcohol. Otene said it was used by him to smoke marijuana.

The summary says the defendants failed to declare the medicinal cannabis and pipe on their arrival cards.   

When spoken to, both defendants said Damon Otene had told them medicinal cannabis could be brought into the country with a prescription, as per a conversation he had with customs on arrival. 

They advised they were asked to fill out their arrival cards when they got into the terminal, and said they were under pressure and were not given any assistance. 

They accepted they filled it out incorrectly, but did not mean to. 

In court the pair entered guilty pleas and asked for discharge without conviction. 

Chief Justice Patrick Keane said there was a contrast, as to the statements from the customs officer and biosecurity officer.   

Defence lawyer Mark Short said the biosecurity officer had been standing next to the customs officer and recalled Damon Otene asking if cannabis could be brought into the Cook Islands, then being told a doctor’s certificate is required.

Short said after the defendants were stopped and questioned at the airport, a customs officer went to see Damon Otene in the terminal waiting area and he confirmed their story about what he had been told by the customs officer. 

Short said it was an unusual case, the defendants wanted to do the right thing, had no family here and wanted to return to New Zealand. 

“In cases like this, it is he said, she said.

“Unless you have it on CCTV, it is hard to see who is telling the truth.”

Short said he believed Damon Otene’s request was genuine.

The couple had not previously appeared before the courts, and as best as they could, complied.

Short said there were genuine cases of back pain and presented a letter from Otene’s doctor in New Zealand which outlined his treatment and prescribed medicinal cannabis.

He had experienced back pain since at least 2013, with an MRI in 2017 revealing disc changes, at which time surgical management was considered.

A medical management approach was decided upon and subsequently Otene had received various methods of pain relief with varied results. Subsequently a trial of medicinal cannabis had proven effective and continued to be subscribed.

“They do understand it is wrong, they are trying not to run away,” Short said of the defendants.

Crown lawyer Jamie Crawford said she was neutral towards the application for discharge without conviction.

CJ Keane, in making his decision, said it was accepted Damon Otene had spoken to a customs officer and asked if medicine could be brought into the Cook Islands, then told he could if it was supported by prescription.

“Although they did not declare the cannabis, they were frank in that they were carrying medicinal cannabis, and understood they were entitled to.

“An officer who spoke to the brother in the foyer gave a consistent account.”

He said convictions for cannabis importation were serious and he would not consider it right to enter convictions.

“They are a young couple with no previous convictions, a business to run, two young children, they should not carry convictions.”

As for the pipe, it was an offence, but should not stand in the way of a discharge, he said.

“They are discharged without conviction.”