From Poppy to Pokey: Morphine Supply - A tricky sentencing exercise

Craig MacKenzie
Craig MacKenzie

Published: November 3rd, 2023

5 min

Sentencing guidelines exist to guide a court when deciding on the appropriate punishment for most drug-related offences. The guidelines reference the most common drugs, such as cocaine and cannabis, but do not expressly cover drugs which are less commonly found in this type of offending. One such drug is morphine.

So, what is the approach to be taken?

The sentencing guideline states:

'Where a drug (such as fentanyl or its agonists) is not listed in the table below, sentencers should expect to be provided with expert evidence to assist in determining the potency of the particular drug and in equating the quantity in the case with the quantities set out in the guidelines in terms of the harm caused. There will often be no precise calculation possible, but courts are reminded that in cases of particularly potent drugs, even very small quantities may be held to be equivalent to large quantities of the drugs listed.'

Expert opinion in relation to morphine suggests that:

  1. Morphine has powerful analgesic (pain relief) properties, but has to be used cautiously because it may cause depression of respiration (breathing), which may in some cases prove fatal.

  2. Morphine and other opioid drugs may cause pulmonary oedema (secretion of fluid into the lungs), which may be observable as froth at the nose and mouth ("foam cone").

  3. Morphine is especially toxic in people who have not taken it recently, i.e. have no pharmacological tolerance to the drug.

  4. Morphine and other opioid drugs such as methadone are also especially toxic at night, when respiration is naturally depressed.

  5. As well as being used as a drug in its own right, Morphine is also the principal plasma metabolite of the drug diamorphine (also known as diacetylmorphine), which in turn is the principal constituent of heroin.

Given that morphine is the principal plasma metabolite of diamorphine, which is the chief constituent of heroin, it would be legitimate for a judge to use the indicative weights of heroin as a guide to the categorisation of harm.

If you are facing an investigation or prosecution for any alleged drug offending, it is essential to seek legal assistance as soon as possible. Early intervention can ensure that all crucial information can be gathered in order to ensure the most favourable outcome.

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We ensure we keep up to date with any changes in legislation and case law so that we are always best placed to advise you properly. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact Craig MacKenzie, Partner and Head of the High-Profile & Private Crime Division

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