The jailing of a 38-year-old Kaikohe community leader on a conviction of possessing cannabis for supply has sparked a petition calling for her release, a Givealittle page raising money for her legal expenses, and even a song.
Mother of three Kelly van Gaalen was last month sentenced last month to two years' imprisonment after a Kaikohe District Court jury heard that police who responded to a home invasion, in which van Gaalen's husband was assaulted by three armed men before he managed to escape, found a bucket and a resealable bag in the couple's bedroom containing 684g of dried cannabis.
Van Gaalen maintained the drug was for her own use and to give to friends, and that she had so much because a plant had grown "exceptionally well." Legally a presumption of supplying can be made for quantities of more than 28g.
She is currently in a women's prison in Wiri.
Her family lodged an appeal against conviction and sentence in the High Court at Whangarei on Monday last week. An application for bail while the appeal was considered was declined, but in the meantime van Gaalen's jailing has sparked calls for her release, and reform of New Zealand's cannabis laws.
The Facebook group 'Free Kelly van Gaalen' had more than 900 members earlier this week, while a Givealittle page had raised $4500 to help pay her legal costs. A petition launched by the Cannabis Party on Change.org, calling on Parliament to free her and reduce sentences for cannabis offences, had collected more than 1100 signatures.
A Kaikohe hiphop band is recording a song called #FreeKelly.
Northland's candidate for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, Maki Herbert, of Mangamuka, said it appeared the court had wanted to make an example of van Gaalen by sending her to jail.
Herbert pleaded guilty last month to cultivation of 153 cannabis plants and possession for supply. She was sentenced to 12 months' home detention, with six months' post-sentence conditions.
"There's no consistency in sentencing. It all depends on the judge on the day," she said.
"We're really quite distressed for Kelly. I know personally how close I came to jail. It's the worst thing that can happen, especially if, like Kelly, you have children."
Van Gaalen's sentence has also attracted the attention of commentators around the country. Writing in the NZ Herald, TV and radio presenter Jack Tame called it a "sad case of unnatural justice" and the outcome as "lunacy"; while influential columnist Brian Rudman called her sentence "monstrous" and urged MPs to decriminalise cannabis.
Wairarapa Times-Age editor Andrew Bonallack, who grew up in Northland, said it was "far too extreme a sentence for someone with multiple character references and a long history of serving the community, a community that does 'indulge'."
Bloggers Martyn Bradbury, writing on the 'Daily Blog,' called the sentence "a terrible miscarriage of justice," while Russell Brown, on 'Public Address,' described a case where a Westport man convicted of cultivating cannabis and possession for supply, in greater quantities than van Gaalen, was sentenced only to home detention.
Judge John McDonald said van Gaalen's sentencing had troubled him, but he had to be consistent with sentences imposed on others for similar offences. He discounted her jail term by six months for her "extremely worthwhile contribution" to the community.
Thirty-two people submitted character references at sentencing, and Kaikohe Business Association chairman Steve Sangster told the court about her beautification of the town, work that had now ground to a halt.
Van Gaalen was a member of the Kaikohe-Hokianga Community Board, chaired the Kaikohe Community Arts Council, and was the business association's town promotions manager. She was awarded a Local Hero medal in last year's New Zealander of the Year awards.
Her family is not commenting while the appeal is under way.
- Northland Age