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Could Kelly van Gaalen’s jail sentence be the start of the downfall of our obsolete drug law?
Kaikohe mother of three, 38-year-old van Gaalen was sentenced last month to two years’ jail for possession of cannabis for supply. She was charged with having 684g of cannabis, 24 times the personal use limit of 28g.
The cannabis was found at her home by Police who were called by her husband following a violent home invasion. He was originally charged for the cannabis until Kelly admitted it was hers.
Kelly is a highly respected community member. She was on her community board, chair of the community arts council and promotions manager for the local business association – roles she resigned from following her arrest. Last year, she was one of 15 Northlanders to receive a Local Heroes medal.
There was no evidence of commercial dealing or that she was profiteering by supplying cannabis to minors. Yet Crown prosecutor Catherine Gisler asked for a three-year sentence, arguing deterrence was important. Kelly’s lawyer Doug Blaikie sought community detention.
When handing down the jail term, Judge John McDonald said, “To say this sentencing has troubled me is an understatement… It is not for this court to comment whether that is a just law or not.”
Many mainstream media commentators have questioned the judge’s ruling. Jake Tame was curious why a discharge without conviction or community sentence wasn’t applied. The New Zealand Herald’s Brian Rudman highlighted similar cases where lesser penalties were used. Others found much more violent and nasty offences that received shorter terms. Russell Brown slammed the judge’s claim that his hands were tied as risible, untrue and cowardly. It is right to question the proportionality of the judge’s decision.
Recent analysis of arrest data by Salient has also uncovered a clear policy decision by Police to shift its focus away from cannabis possession offences. And so it is also right to question Police actions in pursuing this case.
But clearly our attention must turn to Parliament, whose members remain ultimately responsible for their stubborn refusal to repeal our obsolete, 40-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act. The just-released National Drug Policy has few signals in it to give us hope that this may be about to change.
But the widespread public unease about this case could well generate the necessary community-driven demand for fundamental reform – silver lining unlikely to be of much consequence to Kelly van Gaalen’s 5, 7 and 16-year-old children.