On Thursday November 7th, 2019 in the Adelaide District Court (Criminal Jurisdiction), the sentencing of Jennifer Lee Hallam took place at 9.43am before his Honour Judge Soulio.
Jennifer, Jenny to her friends, arrived at Court Room 8 impeccably presented but visibly shaking, with tears welling in her eyes.
She was greeted, with a warm embrace by an integral member of her legal team, her Solicitor (& Barrister) Jessica Kurtzer. Barrister Greg Barns, unable to be in court for the culmination of this process, had worked alongside Jessica to ensure the best possible outcome for their client. The many hours of diligent work and counsel by this exceptional legal team was about to be tested for what, they’d hoped, would be the final time.
This process, the process of justice, had taken its toll. Today Jenny, along with a small gathering of her closest friends and supporters, were about to walk through the heavy wooden doors into a light-filled, almost clinical room, adorned with paintings of former Judges who had presided in that place.
There was quiet chatter amongst the media contingent and gentle touches and caring smiles of assurance in Jenny’s direction.
Jenny had pleaded guilty (albeit late in the piece) to manufacturing a controlled drug, Cannabis oil, between 1 November 2016 and 5 January 2017, and possessing Cannabis oil for supply to another person on 4 January 2017.
The maximum penalties are a fine of $30,000 or seven-years imprisonment, or both, and $15,000 fine or three years imprisonment, or both, respectively. Judge Soulio noted that such offending covers a wide range of circumstances.
There are some chapters that had to be aired to ensure that every mitigating circumstance was disclosed. That disclosure was traumatic and harrowing for Jenny and I would suggest equally so for her friends and supporters. This is personal. Deeply personal.
Judge Soulio said upfront that the genesis of Jenny’s offending was to be found in her experience of chronic pain and subsequent psychological issues, and her reliance on and subsequent addiction to, opioid medication and psychotropic medication. Jenny is not alone in that regard.
To summarise succinctly Jenny’s lengthy medical history as recited by Judge Soulio, licit opiates and antidepressant medication had been ineffective to treat her chronic pain and had produced wide-ranging side effects.
Other therapies and prescription medications were described by a treating doctor as “sub-optimally effective, and not without side effects.”
The list reads like a copy the Monthly Index of Medical Specialities (MIMS). MIMS is a pharmaceutical prescribing reference guide. For the record, I’m certain you will not find whole plant Cannabis or Cannabis oil amongst its pages – I’ll happily stand corrected.
Jenny was quite rightly described by a treating doctor as “resilient, resourceful and an independent person.” The doctor, in a letter tabled as part of many submissions, had also set out a history noting that Jenny had not been satisfied with the limitations of conventional therapy for her afflictions and had sought alternative approaches.
It was during that epic journey that Jenny discovered the benefits of Cannabis and Cannabis oil, which proved to be effective in managing her symptoms. Jenny had become adept in ‘fine-tuning’ the product she made which gave her the best relief. In doing so Jenny, Judge Soulio, reflecting the doctor’s viewpoint said, “true to your altruistic personality you saw the potential benefit for others suffering from cancer pain, epilepsy and other medical ailments for which conventional medicine proved wanting.”
Compellingly, since early in 2016, because of Jenny’s own initiative in identifying Cannabis oil as providing therapeutic benefit, Jenny no longer required the use of prescribed opioid analgesics, or antidepressant or anxiolytic medication
Ironically, it was in 2016 when the law shifted in Australia. Patients in South Australia could legally access Medicinal Cannabis medicines as a result of federal legislative changes which came into effect in November 2016 and the development of a patient access pathway.
I will say again, as I have many times, the patient access pathways are cumbersome and largely unaffordable.
The same doctor expressed the opinion that “conventional medicine had been less than effective in the management of chronic pain and many other conditions and could no longer claim a monopoly in pain management.” He said, “opioid analgesics use had reached an epidemic and crisis point overseas.”
They have also reached crisis point in Australia. There are now huge billboards dotted around the nation that point this out.
This is an extract from a piece published in September this year via Medical Xpress. Medical Xpress is a leading web-based science, research and technology news service which covers a full range of topics.
“It’s depressing at times to see how we, as practitioners, literally messed up our communities,” said Dr. Bastian Seidel, who warned that Australia’s opioid problem was a “national emergency” two years ago when he was president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “It’s our signature on the scripts.”
He sees Australia moving with wilful ignorance toward a disaster.
“Unfortunately, in Australia, we’ve followed the bad example of the U.S.,” he says. “And now we have the same problem.”
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) in a statement released on September 9, 2019 spoke to The Therapeutic Goods Administration’s (TGA) announcement changes to reduce harm in relation to prescription opioids.
In a statement, the TGA says pharmaceutical opioids are now responsible for far more deaths and poisoning hospitalisations in Australia than illegal opioids such as heroin.
“Every day in Australia, nearly 150 hospitalisations and 14 emergency department admissions involve opioid harm, and three people die from drug-induced deaths involving opioid use,” the statement says.
The changes will be phased in from January 2020. All the changes and the full TGA statement can be found by clicking here:
It perplexes me that the TGA can tie Medicinal Cannabis up in so much red tape that it is out of reach for most and that the AMA aren’t more supportive of GP education around Medicinal Cannabis and the streamlining of the process of prescribing. Not to mention updating the curriculum for those currently training to become doctors and allied health professionals.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that “Opioids accounted for just over 3 deaths per day in 2018. The majority of these opioid-induced fatalities were unintentional overdoses in middle aged males involving the use of pharmaceutical opioids, often in the presence of other substances. Opioid related harm, including mortality, is a serious public health issue both in Australia and internationally.”
Age distribution of opioid-induced deaths
“The age distribution of opioid-induced deaths differs considerably from that for all causes. The highest proportion of deaths (30.4%) occurs in those aged between 35-44, while 87.5% of deaths occur between the ages of 25-64. In total 39,221 years of potential life were lost, and on average a person dying from an overdose with opioid involvement died 34.9 years prematurely.” Find out more about these statistics here:
To bring this point home – not one person has died from Cannabis. I would suggest it is fair to say that lives have been saved and lives have been and will continue to be prolonged.
Back to Jenny’s story – “new modalities in pain management were urgently required” – treating doctor.
The judge said time and time again that he regarded such expressions of opinion as ‘personal opinion’ and not necessarily medical guidance. I however, consider it to be a powerful combination of both.
There is a shift in public opinion regarding Medicinal Cannabis.
Legislators take heed.
As a result of Jenny’s pursuit of an ‘alternative therapy’ she no longer requires “prescribed medication for pain and negative mood, and that the use of cannabis oil had resulted in the restoration of (her) physical function and had aided in your psychological wellbeing.”
Following delivering his summation of the submissions tabled, Judge Soulio returned to Jenny’s offending.
“There is no suggestion that any recipient of the cannabis material you were producing and supplying suffered any harm. Indeed, as I have said, the only evidence I have is strongly to the contrary.”
“There is no suggestion that any recreational user of cannabis obtained product from you, and no evidence that any product was on-sold by the recipients of your products.”
Jenny produced two products, a coconut-oil-based product and a full extract cannabis-oil product, which she supplied in syringes and capsules. During the raid of her home the police took Jenny’s client lists, which in Judge Soulio’s view, made it clear by the information recorded that the supply was solely for medical purposes.
Judge Soulio then recounted Jenny’s personal circumstances. He regarded Jenny to be a first offender and against the background he turned to the question of sentence.
He noted that “the paramount purpose of the sentencing legislation is the protection of the community” and he took that into account along with legislative provisions in relation to the general principles of sentencing and the individual sentencing factors to be taken into account.
Jenny’s counsel submitted, and the judge accepted, that Jenny recognised the wrongfulness of her conduct by way of her plea of guilty, “which although entered at a late stage, was in circumstances complicated by the scientific evidence relating to the production of cannabis oil, and the issue of whether the cannabis oil you were producing fell within the purview of the Controlled Substances Act.”
Jenny has been offered employment – an adverse outcome, in terms of sentencing, would unequivocally mean that she would not be able to consider that offer further.
Judge Soulio had regard to other cases when considering the sentence he would impose upon Jenny. The details are included in the transcript. I believe now that Jenny’s case will now be precedent
“Ms Hallam, in your matter I have come to the view that the appropriate basis upon which to proceed is to require you to enter into a bond, without recording a conviction or passing sentence.
The bond will be in the sum of $1,000 and will be for a duration of two years. The only conditions of the bond are that you are be of good behaviour, and that you are to come up for conviction and sentence if the bond is breached.”
“I want to make it clear that that is not a licence to produce unregulated medical cannabis. I regard yours as an exceptional case, strongly supported by persuasive evidence, as to your personal circumstances, the circumstances in which you came to use cannabis oil for your own purposes, noting as to the fact that by the use of that cannabis oil you have been able to free yourself from an addiction to opioid medication and anti-anxiolytic medication, and as to the fact that your provision of that material to others who suffered a range of conditions was motivated by a genuine compassion to help others, and was not motivated in any way by commercial gain and indeed, as I have observed, at considerable expense to you.”
“I also take into account that in addition to those exceptional circumstances, you have been involved in what was for you a traumatic legal process, which of itself has been obviously a salutary experience for you and indicates to you the seriousness with which such matters are regarded.”
Throughout Judge Soulio’s summation (close to an hour of commentary), personal and professional testimony was recounted.
I sat in the court room transfixed and hung on every word.
Judge Soulio’s ruling today demonstrated deep wisdom, understanding and shrewd perception of the matter before him. Above all, it revealed compassion and significant promise for the future of drug law reform in South Australia and in other jurisdictions.
If we are to take seriously the narrative and that has just been aired in the Adelaide District Court, then each politician (and those who aspire to be) and their staffers must read the sentencing remarks.
Once read, they need to be fully briefed by those in the know.
To make it simple here is a very short list (noting these people wear many hats):
- Carol Ireland – CEO and Managing Director of Epilepsy Action Australia.
- Professor Iain McGregor, Professor of Psychopharmacology & Academic Director of the Lambert Initiative at the University of Sydney.
- Greg Barns, Barrister & strong advocate for Drug Law Reform
- Dr Alex Wodak – President of Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation
- Associate Professor David Caldicott – Emergency Consultant at the Emergency Department of the Calvary Hospital in Canberra and a Clinical Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the Australian National University
- Lucy Haslam – Founder of United in Compassion
- Prof Simon Eckermann – Health Economist – University of Wollongong
- Mick Palmer – Retired Australian Federal Police Commissioner
- The wider constituency.
Then, quite simply, they need to act.
If you don’t have time to review the whole transcript, here are some extracts from the sentencing remarks attributed to Carol Ireland and Professor Iain McGregor.
“Ms Ireland said she had never encouraged anyone to break the law but had not judged those who had done so in desperation for the sake of their loved ones.”
Professor McGregor referred to an authoritative review of the literature by the United States National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine, published in 2017, which concluded that there was substantial evidence to support the use of medicinal cannabis products in treating chronic pain, as an anti-emetic in people undergoing chemotherapy,
Professor McGregor noted that as part of the work of the Lambert Initiative surveys indicated that over 85 per cent of the community in Australia supported the availability of medicinal cannabis products to patients in need.
Another Lambert Initiative study, published in 2018, showed that many families with severely epileptic children treated their children with illicit cannabis products. Parents felt compelled to try illicit products because the prescription medications prescribed by neurologists either did not work or caused intolerable side effects, and because official government schemes to allow access to cannabis products were too restrictive or offered products that were simply unaffordable.
Professor McGregor said that the inability of the official Therapeutic Goods Administration Scheme to service the majority of patients in Australia, could be attributed to at least four factors, the third of which was that the expensive nature of the products meant that a chronic pain patient would need to spend $20,000 per year for official products, and the family of an epileptic child more than $50,000 per year. He said that patients can expend a great deal of effort going through the process of obtaining official access to medicinal cannabis products, only to find the products are unaffordable.
Professor McGregor concluded that whilst it is clear that you were breaking the law, it is also clear, in his opinion, that there was sufficient evidence, having regard to the effectiveness of cannabis oil on the various conditions that were you helping treat, that your (Jenny’s) conduct was understandable. He said while it is never preferable for homemade artisanal oils lacking proper quality control to be used as medicines, his research had shown time and time again that desperate patients have little choice. Moreover, many of those patients achieved significant and sometimes miraculous relief from their afflictions.
I have nothing but respect and admiration for Jenny and for her legal counsel.
The outcome of this protracted case is not just vindication for Jenny but significantly, it is a win for the case for compassionate access to cannabis.
I will continue to advocate for a legal framework that not only allows for affordable access to whole plant medicine but also to fast-track the decriminalisation of cannabis.