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Decriminalisation of Cannabis

On the 25th June 2024, the States debated the Decriminalisation of Cannabis, in response to a proposition lodged by Deputy Tom Coles. The result of the debate is that the government are required to put forward detailed proposals for the decriminalisation, regulation and legalisation of cannabis to the Assembly for further debate by the end of 2025.  I have mixed views about this topic - here is the full text of my speech:



In my nomination speech for my previous role as Minister, I was asked by Deputy Mezec whether I agreed that the decriminalisation of cannabis is inevitable in Jersey ?  

My answer was that as a former customs officer, a former senior leader in the police, a former member of the Probation and Aftercare Service and as an active criminologist, I had a bit of cognitive dissonance around the decriminalisation of cannabis.  

In my role as Minister, following the publication of ‘A Change of Direction – Jersey’s ten-year substance use strategy, I had envisaged an in-committee debate to take place at the end of January this year in order for the Assembly to be able to express their opinions on this topic. That would have enabled me to explore the many and complex issues and take action, in slow time, to follow the will of the assembly in a measured and evidence-based manner.

The new Minister chose not to follow that path, which is her right, but I fear that we are now faced with a ‘minestrone’ of a proposition and various amendments that suggest the direction of travel should be towards decriminalisation in haste.  So, I still have a level of cognitive dissonance – but for different reasons !


Some members might suggest that current drug policy is inappropriate, ineffective, and utterly out of date, and, given the growing body of evidence that its continued criminalisation is harmful and leads to worse outcomes for those who involve themselves with that sort of thing, choose to support this proposition. Others will have legitimate concerns about the potential increase in mental health issues associated with high levels of cannabis consumption.


Outside of Jersey, the debate over decriminalising cannabis has elicited a variety of opinions along with perspectives differing across party lines and individual stances. While the UK government has been resistant to changing cannabis laws, citing potential health risks, the discussion among politicians and the public is evolving, the direction of travel is more focused towards the decriminalisation of cannabis and there are increasing calls for reform based on health, economic, and social justice considerations.

I wholeheartedly agree that criminalising individuals for small amounts of cannabis is not ideal and we are fortunate in Jersey to be able to effectively support that view using the Parish Hall Enquiry System and carefully crafted guidelines from the Attorney General which are both flexible and responsive. These guidelines began in 1998 where the AG endorsed the issue of a written caution for a first possession offence of less than 10grams of cannabis for personal use providing the person agreed to attend a Drug Awareness Course. This has evolved slowly over the years, following advice from the Misuse of Drugs Advisory Council to include personal possession of other substances and increase quantities.

The latest legislative changes come with the enactment of the Crime (Public Order ) ( Jersey ) Law which provides for a  Level 1 fine at Parish Hall for the repeat possession of up to 15g of herbal cannabis or resin.


If we are to decriminalise, we need a structured approach. This should include limits on possession amounts, controls on where cannabis can be used, consumption limits while driving etc..​ Any framework should ensure that decriminalisation does not lead to uncontrolled use but creates a regulated environment where cannabis is safely and responsibly consumed.

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There is a salutary tale from Thailand where in June 2022 cannabis was decriminalised. The Thai government established guidelines for cultivation, sale and medicinal use.

Decriminalisation sparked debates within Thai civic society; traditional elements clashed with modernists. The state developed education campaigns to help inform the public about safe and legal use of cannabis. The change in the law, perhaps unsurprisingly,  attracted more visitors, particularly those interested in cannabis tourism.  Many cannabis cafes and ‘well-being centres’ were established to serve locals and tourists alike, boosting the economy.  

There were various legal ambiguities and enforcement challenges – ( not altogether different to what the States of Jersey Police are facing already ) – whilst cultivation and medical use were encouraged, the specifics of what constituted illegal recreational use were not always clear leading to confusion and ad hoc enforcement.  


Earlier this year, the Prime Minister of Thailand announced plans to re-criminalise cannabis by the end of this year. The aim is to address concerns about drug addiction and enforce stricter controls on cannabis use.  This will reclassify cannabis as a drug, restricting its use for medical purposes only.

This decision has not gone down well in what has grown into quite an industry in Thailand. Thousands of small businesses will be affected.  Significant protest and legal challenge are expected as people challenge this policy reversal. 

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I raise this example; not because I think we should not go down this route, but because we need to get it right for Jersey and we need to think very carefully about all the consequences, intended and unintended.  We need regulation that works for us, and the characteristics of our small island community, it would be wholly unsatisfactory for us to get it wrong and have to reverse decriminalisation decisions, as is happening in Thailand.


For me, this is not a conversation about a plant, it is a debate about social and criminal justice, public health and economics.  There is a strong social justice argument for decriminalisation. A report by the charity Release has highlighted how current drug laws disproportionately affect minority communities and those from socio-economically deprived backgrounds.  They argue that decriminalisation could mitigate these disparities but also note that ‘cannabis should be a regulated right’.

Decriminalising cannabis in Jersey might be a step towards a more just, healthy, and economically robust society. It might allow us to address social inequalities, ensure public safety through regulation, and harness economic benefits for community reinvestment.


But we need to move forward carefully and slowly, making rational decisions based on evidence and common-sense.  We need to acknowledge the complexities of change in this area – the potential changes in our constitutional relationship with the UK have been highlighted in the letter from the Chair of the Misuse of Drugs Advisory Council, which States Members were sent last week.

But there are other areas that need to be carefully considered :

o   How will Jersey tackle increased usage and the risk of dependency?

o   How will Jersey address the public health issues?

o   How will Jersey deal with people who drive under the influence of cannabis, or look after our children, or pilot a boat, or a plane, or operate on, or care for patients?

o   How will Jersey deal with the regulatory challenges – inconsistent quality and an illicit market? 

o   How will Jersey address the higher health care costs of treating cannabis-related issues?

o   How will Jersey tackle the challenges faced by employers where employees are ‘cognitively challenged’ by the use of cannabis and therefore less productive, or a risk to the health and safety of the workplace?

None of these areas are insurmountable – other countries seem to have achieved an appropriate balance.


Switzerland is currently piloting several projects to explore the impacts of regulated cannabis sales. The goal is to gather data on the impacts of legal cannabis markets. Like Jersey, the Swiss approach emphasises harm reduction and like Jersey, their approach is characterised by a pragmatic and evidence-based strategy that seeks to balance public health concerns with the realities of cannabis use in a modern society.


We should also note that the Swiss government supports extensive research on cannabis use and its effects in their community. There are no short-cuts to this for Jersey. We need to do our own research to help us develop policies that work for Jersey and not assume because it works in Switzerland or doesn’t work in Thailand it would be the same here. And that will have a cost. If this proposition is successful, I shall be interested to see what level of funding is proposed in the Government plan.


I believe that we need a rational, compassionate, and evidence-based approach to cannabis decriminalisation.


I think there are parallels with this debate and that of Assisted Dying, where there was an in-principle decision from the assembly, followed by a very detailed report and proposition to be followed by a draft law.



Today, it seems to me that we are at the ‘in-principle’ stage. I hope that the Government will have sufficient time and resource to provide us with a similarly detailed report and proposition, informed and supported by a similar level of public consultation, and dare I say it, a Citizen’s Jury process.


So, for similar reasons that I stated around Assisted Dying, I will support the approach put forward by the Council of Ministers in the amendment to the proposition and I look forward to their  detailed proposals at the end of next year and very much hope that the questions I have raised here today will be addressed.

 

Dr Helen Miles

Deputy of St Brelade

June 2024

 

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