The Age reports that Dr Sarah Moore, 35, who had grown up in The Family, a cult formerly associated with Mrs Hamilton-Byrne, had pleaded guilty to 160 charges relating to writing prescriptions for pethidine between November 2004 and April 2005.
It is assumed that Dr Moore was charged with offences under s.77 of the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 which makes it an offence to forge or utter a prescription for a drug of dependence.
Under that Act, pethidine is classified as a drug of dependence. A breach of s.77 is a summary offence punishable by a fine of 20 penalty units or one year’s imprisonment or both.
It appears that Dr Moore was writing the prescriptions for herself and had started taking pethidine to relieve pain associated with an abdominal incision she received as a child when initiated into the cult.
Dr Moore (seen here) was put on a four-year good behaviour bond, without conviction, and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service. She was also ordered to continue with a drug treatment program, obey instructions from her psychiatrist and follow directions from the Victorian Doctors Health Program.
In passing sentence, Magistrate Nunzio La Rosa noted that as a result of growing up in The Family, Dr Moore had contracted bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
In not recording a conviction, the magistrate said that Dr Moore would not have to appear before a medical board, but it is unclear from The Age’s version whether the Mr La Rosa was accepting a submission put by or on behalf of Dr Moore or whether he had arrived to that conclusion himself.
Although Moore was not “convicted” in relation to the offences to which she pleaded guilty, nonetheless those offences could amount to “unprofessional conduct”, as that term is defined in s.3 of the Medical Practice Act 1994.
The provision expressly includes “findings of guilt” under a number of relevant Acts of Parliament. Such findings could lead to an inquiry by the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria.
As one might expect with a drug of dependence like pethidine, its sale, possession and use are strictly controlled. For a brief outline of prescribing and reporting requirements for medical practitioners, see the Department of Human Services advice.
In a related case some years ago a rather notorious medico by the name of Dr Ian McGoldrick sought to obtain registration as a medical practitioner following a period during which he was not registered.
At first instance, the board refused his application after a formal hearing because it was of the view, generally speaking, that Dr McGoldrick was of bad character. The board accepted evidence that Dr McGoldrick had been convicted of a number of offences of dishonesty, including forging and uttering prescriptions.
McGoldrick appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal which allowed his appeal. The tribunal registered Dr McGoldrick with various conditions.
Aggrieved by the decision of the tribunal, the board appealed to the Supreme Court which unanimously upheld the appeal. Buchanan JA said at paragraph 24 of the court’s judgment:
“Medical practitioners occupy a position of considerable trust, and it is in the public interest that they should merit that trust. Accordingly, it is to be expected that medical practitioners will be scrupulously honest in their dealings with patients, with other doctors and those in related professions such as nurses, radiologists and technicians and support staff and with the government departments with which they deal in the course of their practice.”
The scale of Moore’s misconduct is not on the same level as McGoldrick’s. However, it is apparent that she illegally obtained and consumed pethidine on numerous occasions over a six-month period and that she used dishonest means to do so.
It is my view that it is not appropriate for a judicial officer in the exercise of a discretion, when sentencing an offender, to usurp the jurisdiction of an expert tribunal such as the medical board. The board, after all, has been established by Parliament for the express purpose of protecting the public.
If Dr Moore’s case comes before the board, clearly the issue for determination would be whether her admitted misconduct, along with her various medical conditions and any other relevant matters, would render her unfit to practice as a registered medical practitioner.
That is squarely an issue for the board not a sentencing magistrate or judge.