Three male teens were sentenced earlier this month after pleading guilty to possession with intent to supply 110 pounds of ganja.
The sentencing process gave Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale much concern. Defence Attorneys John Furniss and Ben Tonner pointed out the teens were 15, 17 and 18 when they found the ganja along the Queen’s Highway and took possession of it on 26 September,2007.
The magistrate questioned whether they had genuinely stumbled upon the drug or whether they had been sent to pick it up.
If the courts did not impose custodial sentences because the defendants are young persons of good character, then drug dealers would start drawing young people into the trade, she said. ‘I don’t wish to send that message.’
Brief facts put forward by the Crown were that officers of the Drugs Task Force and other agencies were carrying out Operation Teabag in East End, where a large quantity of ganja was the subject of covert observation.
Officers saw a vehicle approaching and then leaving shortly. Due to the vehicle’s direction and other factors, it was stopped. The driver was 17; his passengers were 18 and 15.
Officers found two sacks of ganja in the trunk and a parcel in the back seat.
Taken to the police station, each teen was spoken with separately. Each explained that one of them had gone into the bush to urinate. He saw the ganja and told the others. They had not known about it previously. Each tested positive for ganja consumption.
Mr. Furniss pointed out that, by arresting the three so soon, officers lost any chance to find out what the teens were going to do with the ganja. Officers had asked them if they had been told to check the spot or go there, but all three said no. They maintained they had found the ganja and were going to put it away and use it.
The magistrate commented that they could not hope to smoke 110 pounds. Mr. Tonner likened the situation to one in which a 16-year-old finds barrels of beer, consumes as much as he can and invites friends to share. It would be poor decision making, he agreed.
The three boys in this case made admissions from the beginning, but pleaded not guilty to possession with intent to supply because they did not intend to sell any of the ganja. However they later agreed they would have shared some of it and pleaded guilty on that basis.
Mr. Furniss said the oldest of the three was upset because he had been locked down for seven days after his arrest and people viewed him differently as a result.
‘Yes! That is the price you pay,’ the magistrate told this defendant. ‘What you have is your [good] character and you shouldn’t give it up for a stick of weed. You mark yourself… When you see ganja waving at you from the bush, think about the consequences.’
Shortly after the three first appeared in court they were directed to attend probation and counselling services. Mr. Furniss said the three had been subject to the discipline of the court and counsellors ever since.
Both attorneys suggested that the court could hand down suspended sentences. Probation is not an option for offences of possessing drugs with intent to supply.
One of the teens had been working all along; the other two now have jobs, the attorneys advised. ‘Do all the employers know the boys are here?’ the magistrate asked. She was told yes. She then asked the court marshal to get a urine sample from each defendant for drug screening.
‘I know how difficult this is or the parents, but it is also difficult for the court,’ she said in adjourning the matter for another day. She said courts are interested in the rehabilitation of young persons, but they are also interested in the protection of the community.
The next day the magistrate reviewed the progress each teen had made. After they entered their guilty pleas in May, it appeared each had made considerable effort to stop using ganja.
Social inquiry reports recommended probation because of their youth and ability to respond to intervention, but probation was prohibited.
Immediate custody was the right sentence, but attorneys had argued that suspended sentences would have the same effect. She did not think a suspended sentence was appropriate by itself because it would not require the boys to do anything. They still had matters to address, including education and preventing relapse into substance abuse.
She expressed the opinion that if they were sent into custody much of the good work done by counsellors probation officers be undone. The only thing such a sentence would achieve would be deterrence to others.
The message should be – if you stumble on drugs and take possession of them instead of calling police, you will go to prison, the magistrate said. ‘I would hate to be responsible for any shift in the public’s mind that courts are reluctant to send young persons to prison for drugs.’
Having said that, she continued, there are always exceptional cases. These three had gained employment and ceased their use of ganja. If they agreed to continue in counselling and continue weekly urine tests, then she could consider allowing them to remain in the community.
‘The only way I’m going to let you remain on the road is if you are clean and in work or in school,’ she told the boys.
One of the things that encouraged her in coming to this decision was the fact that ‘each employer knows the boy is here; each is prepared to work with the court and the boys in their rehabilitation.’
She could not give them suspended sentences without anything more. But each had pleaded guilty to consumption of ganja and for that she could make an order for probation.
The sentence for each was therefore two years imprisonment, suspended, for the possession of ganja with intent, and two years probation, during which they will be supervised and tested for drug use until the court says when.
The magistrate concluded by saying she considered this to be a wholly exceptional sentence. She did not intend to send any message that someone could avoid imprisonment because of youth or non-drug use.