- 02 Jul 07
Helen Stone, proprietor of a number of Cork head shops, faces a potential jail sentence for supplying what she still believes are legal party pills.
To look at her, you’d hardly know that Helen Stone was the proud owner of a string of businesses. Her clapped-out car and well-worn clothes are a testament to her hard-wired humility, born of her unconventional background.
As she puts it, “You can take the girl out of the caravan park, but you can’t take the caravan park out of the girl”. Helen is best known for suing Customs and Excise, who were illegally seizing deliveries of magic mushrooms to her ‘Funky Skunk’ head shop in Cork.
That was then, this is now: in Fermoy District Court last Friday, Helen Stone once again found herself fighting for your right to party – and what she considers to be her inaliable right to sell you party pills.
Stone had been busted at Mitchelstown market in Cork last June, when the Gardaí seized the entire contents of her market van and sent the various pills, powders and liquids for analysis. The Gardaí eventually found what they were looking for – a controlled substance – though it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as they might have hoped. Helen Stone was to be charged, not with distributing LSD or MDMA, but with the possession and sale of ephedrine, an obscure stimulant similar to caffeine, which was present in small amounts in some of the samples.
2004 was a big year for ephedrine, which was the subject of no fewer than three Statutory Instruments (SIs) during that year. SIs are ministerial diktats, which become law on the say-so of the Minister, without any debate in the Dail. From a democratic perspective, you could say that they are of dubious provenance – but they exist in Irish law. The result is that a head shop owner can find themselves on the wrong side of the law overnight, if they don’t watch out for the frequent, often unheralded SIs. In effect this is what happened Stone.
The very survival of Helen Stone’s business depends on an ability to remain several steps ahead of the law. She freely admits that she’s involved in a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, which can only end when she is treated as any other business person would be.
The presiding judge in Mitchelstown, Judge Pattwell, was exceedingly unikely to see Helen as just another entreupeneur. He has not been noted as a man of great patience, and famously remarked on one occasion that it is better to simply accept your guilt and not attempt a defence. One defendant, a professional driver, was fined €2,500 and disqualified from driving for one year for the offence of undertaking a car on the hard shoulder. It didn’t help that he had argued the toss in court.
As the morning wore on, this wasn’t the only bad omen for Helen Stone. Before her case was heard, Judge Pattwell had handed a seven-day prison sentence to a fourth-time offender who was caught with less than a gram of cannabis, signing off with an impassioned speech about the evils of drug use which made abundantly clear his vehement disapproval of what he termed the ‘softly, softly’ approach to cannabis.
Given the morning’s events, it was hardly surprising to find that Helen was nervous at lunch-time. Her defence seemed sound, but there was no predicting what a judge might do.
The crux of the case revolved around two SIs. One appeared to ban ephedrine outright; the other exempted products containing ephedrine, provided it was not easily extracted. As Helen’s ephedrine occurred inside a herb, and couldn’t be easily extracted, the position seemed sufficiently ambiguous to give her a real chance. But the prosecution argued that one SI had over-ruled the other, even though they were both issued on the same day.
Defence Counsel Peter O’Flynn made every effort to explain the intricacies of the law to the judge, but an increasingly tetchy Judge Pattwell threatened that he was minded to lock Helen up. When the accused took the stand, she explained to the Judge that she sold such party pills as a safer alternative to street drugs, and to provide a service that would otherwise be provided by criminals touting contaminated products. She explained that there were small amounts of illegal substances in everyday items, such as DMT in tomato soup, prompting Judge Pattwell to warn “We’d better be careful of tomato soup, so.”
In the end Helen Stone was found guilty. Interestingly, if Judge Pattwell’s determination in the case holds true, then it must logically mean that (then) Health Minister Micheál Martin passed one law in the morning and a totally contradictory one in the afternoon. However, Helen’s command of the legal and scientific nicities were enough to convince the judge not to jail her on the day – though he may do so yet. He has ordered a probation report, and will pass sentence in September.
Afterwards, Helen said she was very disappointed that the judge had handed down her first criminal conviction. She has every intention of continuing to sell the legal highs that are on offer in head shops generally, because she believes passionately that she is offering a safer alternative to street drugs. She views the head shop industry as the government’s natural ally in the ‘war on drugs’. Someday, when the unrelenting failure of official drug policies, frantic desperation and common sense combine, the authorities might recognise and reach out to their natural allies. Until then, however, the cat and mouse game goes on.