Laura Plummer gaoled for taking Tramadol into Egypt
Big news in the UK today is the case of Laura Plummer, a 33 year old British woman who managed to “accidentally” plead guilty to importing Tramadol painkiller tablets into Egypt in a bizarre misunderstanding on Christmas Day. She has now been sentenced to three years imprisonment by the court.
In Egypt it seems that the possession and importation of Tramadol is banned without a special prescription because it is widely abused in that country. Ms Plummer has said that she did not know the medication was illegal in Egypt and had taken it into the country for her Egyptian boyfriend, Omar Caboo, who is also 33 years old. According to the news reports I’ve read of Ms Plummer’s account and those given by her family to explain her actions, Ms Plummer obtained the drugs from a friend here in the UK. It is unclear whether that friend was in possession of a prescription nor, if they were, how it came to be that they built up such an extensive stockpile if they genuinely required the medication – it seems Ms Plummer obtained 290 tablets from this friend. So far as my limited medical knowledge extends, Tramadol can be taken at most every 4 hours. That would mean that 290 tablets would last somebody on that dose just over 48 days, which is quite a hoardto build up if you really need them.
You might think that it would be sensible to make some enquiries of the Egyptian Embassy when applying for her VISA, especially since it can be little surprise that Egypt controls Tramadol when it is also a controlled drug in the UK, where it is listed under Part III of Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which makes it a class C drug! Even if you do not know that, the fact that you can only obtain it with a prescription from a medical doctor should ring alarm bells in anyone’s mind that this is not the same sort of medication as Aspirin.
I do not know anything at all about Egyptian law, so I’ll restrict my comments to English law.
We’ve already seen that Tramadol is a class C drug in the UK. That means that if you import it to or export from the UK you will be committing a criminal offence under section 3 of the 1971 Act. Importing or exporting a class C drug into/from the UK carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment!
Because Ms Plummer had no prescription for the medication, and no lawful reason for possessing it in the UK, she may also have been committing the offence of possession of drugs while in the UK, based on the facts as reported by the UK press so far, although you should always take “facts” in court case stories with a pinch of salt.
What would the sentence be for somebody in Ms Plummer’s situation importing Tramadol into the UK in similar circumstances? The sentencing guidelines call for us to establish whether she played a leading, significant or lesser role in the operation. So, we must ask what is the operation? It would seem to be one in which Ms Plummer has arranged for her friend to supply her with the Tramadol, on the facts reported it would appear that this supply is illegal, although whether there is a defence available should the friend be charged is unclear – there may well be. Having obtained the drug, she then took it to Egypt with the intention of supplying it to her boyfriend, Mr Caboo. On the reported account, the supply was not for financial gain. It has been said that no effort was made to conceal with drugs, which you may think reflects badly on the UK security checks that failed to notice this stash of pills. In any event, I would suggest that she cannot be described as playing a leading role because that seems more applicable to somebody at the top of a large-scale operation making significant financial gains. She may well be playing a significant role because she clearly is involved in a chain of individuals and appears to have some operational or management function within that chain. She has involved others in the chain, albeit there is no suggestion that this was done by pressure, influence, intimidation or force. On the reported account she is probably not quite in a lesser role because she is not acting under direction, has not been engaged by pressure, coercion or intimidation, etc. Her family have certainly argued that she became involved through naivety. On balance, I would place somebody in Ms Plummer’s position bringing Tramadol into the UK on the fence between lesser and significant roles, probably tending slightly more toward a significant role due to the planning that must have gone into the operation.
In terms of harm, the guidelines require us to look at the amounts of drugs involved. They do not specify an amount for Tramadol but they do specify amounts for ketamine, which is the same class of drug as Tramadol. The guidelines break the harm into four categories with 5g of ketamine putting somebody into the fourth and lowest category while 150g is category 3. In a real case, I would hope that more research were done into the comparability of the weights of ketamine and Tramadol.
Assuming each Tramdol tablet is 50 milligrams that would mean that 290 of them equates to 14.5g of Tramadol. So, it is almost three times higher than the category 4 level but is many times less than the category 3 level, which means we can safely place it into category 4, which is the lowest level of harm. Just to be clear, I do not believe it would be possible to reach 150g of Tramadol in 290 tablets given that would require each tablet to contain over 500 milligrams and I do not believe they make a dose that strong.
Because this offence would be in category 4 and the amounts involved are significantly below the category 3 amounts, we are directed to refer ourselves to the guideline for possession of drugs rather than importation. When we do that we discover that a person in a similar situation to Ms Plummer caught importing Tramadol to the UK would likely receive a medium level community order at worst.
So, we can see that the sentence handed down in Egypt is significantly harsher than what would have been received by a person in a similar situation in the UK; however, it is certainly not as bad as the press was reporting she should expect before today – this morning I read that she was facing the death penalty!
It’s worth saying that even if she were solidly in the leading role and category three range she would still only have received a maximum of 18 months imprisonment for the same offence in the UK.
What is most interesting about Ms Plummer case is our reaction to it. Most newspapers I’ve seen have been hostile to the prosecution and sentence, either explicitly or just by the general feeling conveyed in their reporting. But, many people in the UK also think that people caught importing drugs are treated leniently – that’s the feeling I get from people I speak to and newspapers I read. For once, we all get to see the issue from the other side. If you are in favour of tougher gaol sentences for people importing drugs to the UK, then this is what they look like – people caught with painkillers going to prison for years at a time!