Our politicians will be very pleased with themselves. Judge John McDonald has done their bidding and last week jailed a Kaikohe mother of three, 33-year-old Kelly van Gaalen, for two years after police found a bucket of dried marijuana at her home.
The cops had turned up, not because the van Gaalen residence was a tinny house, but in response to a 111 cry for help from husband Jasper van Gaalen in the aftermath of a violent armed home invasion.
Three Kaikohe men were subsequently sent to prison for the attack, but the police also found 684g of dried marijuana in the house and two plants outside, and charged the couple with growing cannabis for supply.
The charges against Mr van Gaalen were withdrawn after his wife said the plants were hers. She said she had smoked cannabis daily since she was 14, and the two plants were for her personal use. She also gave it away to about 20 close friends. The Northern Advocate reported Judge McDonald as saying there was no evidence of commercial use, but that Parliament had set the upper limit for possession for personal use at 28g, and "it is not for this court to comment whether that is a just law or not". He added that "to say this sentencing has troubled me is an understatement". That didn't stop him from imposing a draconian punishment.
He said he had to be consistent with sentences imposed for similar offences. The blogosphere has been alive with examples showing how wrong this claim appears.
On June 27, for example, the Ashburton Guardian reported the case of an Israeli couple caught red-handed with 6kg of dried cannabis, and a sophisticated indoor growing operation at their residence. There was evidence of 54 plants and a master plant for propagation. Yet Judge Noel Welsh discharged them without conviction in return for a $2000 donation to the Salvation Army.
On July 4, Legalise Cannabis Party candidate in the recent Northland byelection Maki Herbert was sentenced to 12 months' home detention after being found with 153 plants and convicted of cultivation for supply.
Mrs van Gaalen has appealed against her sentence but rots away in Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility, her application for bail denied, while her local community raises funds for her appeal.
If you needed proof that a little marijuana each day did no harm, Mrs van Gaalen seems the living evidence. The recipient of one of Northland's 15 Local Hero medals, she was chairwoman of the Kaikohe Community Arts Council, a member of the local Community Board and promotions manager for the Kaikohe Business Association.
In court, her business association boss, Steve Sangster, praised her achievements and the pride she had instilled in the town.
In 2011, the Law Commission estimated 400,000 Kiwis broke the cannabis laws every year, despite the police devoting 580,000 hours and $100 million a year fighting the losing battle. A Herald-DigiPoll survey a year ago showed most New Zealanders opposed this war on marijuana, wanting its use either decriminalised or made legal. Which it was, up until 1927 when our parliamentarians lumped it in with legislation aimed at stopping Chinese opium smokers from deflowering local maidens.
They were following the lead of the United States. It's time they did that again. In the US, 27 states plus the capital, Washington DC, have either decriminalised or legalised the drug.
Unfortunately for Mrs van Gaalen, it's now up to the glacial-paced justice system to revisit her monstrous sentence.
But that doesn't absolve the parliamentarians. Fearful of the law-and-order zealots, neither of the major parties has been willing to keep pace with public opinion or common sense. They had a perfect chance a few years back at the height of the synthetic marijuana scare. These unproven and unstable chemicals had flooded the market as a legal substitute for the banned natural product.
The quick solution would have been to decriminalise the local plant product. Instead, MPs tied themselves in knots in a failed attempt to create a regulated market in the experimental substitutes.
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