Can the Prosecution prefer two distinct drug charges – one pertaining to cannabis and the other relating to “cannabis mixture” – against an accused person, when both substances are part of a single compressed block of cannabis-related vegetable matter?
The Court of Appeal has ruled in the negative, in a landmark judgment issued on Wednesday (29th April) morning, as it throws out an appeal by 34-year-old Saravanan Chandaram, who will have to spend his life behind bars for importing 1383.6g of cannabis into Singapore.
However, Saravanan’s conviction on the second charge, which was for importing 3,295.7g of fragmented vegetable matter containing cannabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol, being “cannabis mixture” detected within the same bundles as those containing the cannabis, was set aside as a result of the apex court’s ruling.
As a result, Saravanan, who initially faced the maximum 24 strokes of the cane altogether for these two charges, will only receive the minimum 15 strokes of the cane for the single charge of trafficking in cannabis.
Saravanan, a driver and bodyguard for a drug syndicate leader in Malaysia known as “Aya”, was instructed by the latter to deliver ten bundles to a customer in Singapore. He entered Singapore via Woodlands Checkpoint on the morning of 6th November 2014 and was arrested by officers from the Immigrations & Checkpoints Authority (ICA). The bundles were tested and found to contain cannabis and cannabis mixture.
At trial, Saravanan’s defence was that he agreed to transport the bundles into Singapore in order to repay a loan from Aya for his son’s operation, believing that it contained contraband tobacco, and that Aya had deceived him due to his refusal to bring controlled drugs into Singapore.
In August 2017, Justice Aedit Abdullah convicted Saravanan of both charges, finding that he had actual knowledge as to the nature of the drugs; and in any event, he had failed to rebut the presumption of knowledge under the Misuse of Drugs Act. As Saravanan was a mere courier and had a certificate of substantive assistance, he was given a global sentence of life imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane.
The Court of Appeal – comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judge of Appeal Steven Chong – heard Saravanan’s appeal on two occasions, and reserved judgment on the last occasion in May last year.
In brief, the apex court disagreed with Justice Abdullah that Saravanan had actual knowledge as to the nature of the drugs, but agreed that he had not rebutted the presumption of knowledge.
The court also clarified the definition of “cannabis mixture”; it held that both cannabis matter and vegetable matter of non-cannabis origin or indeterminate origin, which could not be distinguished or separated from each other, must be present before it can be considered as “cannabis mixture”. In so doing, it departed from an earlier case decided in 1996, which held that the definition of “cannabis mixture” may include “an unadulterated mixture of vegetable matter of entirely cannabis origin”.
The court further held that the sentencing ranges for trafficking or importation offences of cannabis should be based on the gross weight of cannabis mixture, and not just merely the amount of cannabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol contained in the mixture.
On the facts, the court could not rule out the possibility that some of the fragmented vegetable matter were created as a result of the testing procedure conducted by the Health Sciences Authority, and did not exist in that form when Saravanan imported the bundles into Singapore. Any estimate of the respective quantities of cannabis and cannabis mixture at the time of the offence in such circumstances would therefore have been “arbitrary” to an accused person.
As such, it would have been impermissible for the Prosecution to prefer two distinct charges for trafficking in both cannabis and cannabis mixture in relation to a single block of cannabis-related vegetable matter.