By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Officers from Strike Force Taipan executed a warrant at Barrack Heights, where they seized 4,993 grams dextromethorphan. The weight was not less than the large commercial quantity of the drug.
The pair were charged with supplying the drug between 20 March and 2 August 2013. The maximum penalty for the offence of supplying a large commercial quantity of a prohibited drug is life imprisonment and/or a fine of $550,000.
Dextromethorphan is a common active ingredient in over-the-counter cough medicine. On the streets, the drug is known as “dex,” or “poor man’s PCP.” The drug can produce a euphoric or hallucinogenic effect on those who use it.
The quantity found at Kandarakis’ property had been sourced in India, and then forwarded to Sydney. It was claimed the drug was going to be used in a salted mix for cows.
Dextromethorphan is an isomer of the drug methorphan. An isomer is a molecule that has the same molecular formula as another molecule, but has a different chemical structure.
Disputing the charge
Before a jury was empanelled, Mr Woods’ lawyers made an interlocutory application to NSW District Court judge Helen Syme to quash the indictment on the basis dextromethorphan is not a prohibited substance under the DMT Act.
Section 3 of the Act outlines that a prohibited drug “means any substance, other than a prohibited plant, specified in schedule 1.” A substance “includes preparation and admixture and all salts, isomers, esters or ethers of any substance and all salts of those isomers, esters and ethers.”
Schedule 1 lists the traffickable, small, indictable, commercial and large commercial quantities of all prohibited plants and drugs. Methorphan, along with levomethorphan (another isomer of methorphan), are listed in the schedule. However, dextromethorphan is not.
Schedule 1 of the DMT Act also includes an analogue provision.
This subsection states that a prohibited drug also includes any unlisted related drug if it is either “a structural isomer having the same constituent groups as the drug,” or if it is “a structural modification obtained in one or more of the following ways…” And a long list of ways is outlined.
“Under the analogue provision, where a substance that is not a prohibited drug has psychotropic properties, and is structurally similar to a prohibited drug in specified ways, it is treated as a prohibited drug for the purpose of the Act,” explained Liberal MLC Matthew Mason-Cox in 2013.
The findings of the trial judge
Both the prosecution and defence tendered statements from experts. And there was little disagreement between them.
They agreed that an isomer can either be a structural isomer or a stereoisomer. A structural isomer has the same molecular formula as another molecule, but a different bonding arrangement between atoms. Whereas, a stereoisomer has both identical molecular formula and arrangement of atoms.
Dextromethorphan is a stereoisomer of methorphan, but not a structural isomer.
Judge Syme concluded that as dextromethorphan is an isomer of methorphan, but not a structural isomer, it is not capable of being included in the analogue provision of schedule 1 of the DMT Act.
However, Her Honour found that dextromethorphan does appear in the Poison and Therapeutic Goods Act 1996 as a restricted substance. And this Act contains offence provisions for the supply of restricted substances.
The judge ruled the drug was prohibited, as she found no conflict between the two Acts.
The Crown concedes
Mr Woods appealed Judge Syme’s interlocutory judgement to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal (NSWCCA) on the sole ground “that her Honour erred in finding that dextromethorphan is a prohibited drug under the DMT Act.”
On 31 August last year, the Crown conceded that dextromethorphan was not a prohibited substance for the purposes of the DMT Act, and that Her Honour had made an error.
The Crown’s concession was that the definition of a prohibited drug in section 3 of the DMT Act “means” any substance specified in schedule 1, including the analogue provisions.
Both parties agreed that the definition of substance is the “preparation and admixture and all salts”, which means the total weight of the substance found, not merely the weight of the drugs contained within that substance.
So, for example, if the total weight of a white powder is 1 kilogram, but an analysis of the substance finds that it is only 25 percent heroin and the rest is something else, the accused will be charged in respect of 1 kg of heroin for a NSW state offence such as possession or supply, not with 250 grams of the substance.
The Crown conceded that substance is not meant to work as a “catch-all” for all substances that are not listed within schedule 1, or covered in the analogue provisions.
This was consistent with the argument made by Mr Woods’ lawyers.
The NSWCCA was told that that if the trial judge was correct, then the list of chemicals specified as prohibited substances would expand “far beyond those considered to be prohibited drugs under either the explicit list included in the schedule or those brought within the schedule by the analogue provisions.”
The NSWCCA findings
The NSWCCA agreed with this line of argument. They therefore allowed the appeal, vacated the judgement, and quashed the indictment. On 2 February this year, the court also ordered the state to cover Mr Woods’ legal costs.
“The effect of this court’s decision is that the applicant had been charged with an offence unknown to law,” the NSWCCA justices found. “No further proceedings under the DMT Act can be brought against him for the supply of dextromethorphan, as it is not a prohibited drug.”
Moves underway to ban the substance
A spokesperson for the attorney general said dextromethorphan had been referred to the government’s committee that makes recommendations about adding substances to the DMT Act list.
“Although it is a substance that can be abused, it also has legitimate medicinal uses,” the spokesperson remarked.
Dextromethorphan has not yet been not listed in schedule 1 of the DMT Act, although it remains a ‘restricted substance’ and is heavily regulated under the provisions of the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act.