Could Jersey be next to decriminalise cannabis?

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JERSEY’S Health Minister has signalled his support for decriminalising cannabis.

As countries across the world continue to review, reduce or even abolish penalties for those caught with the drug, Deputy Tom Binet said that a softer stance on possessing cannabis would “make a lot of sense”.

And Chief Minister Lyndon Farnham said that although he was “undecided”, he was “not against decriminalisation” as long as there was enough evidence to support the move.

The question of whether the Island should take a more relaxed approach towards a drug which is now widely used for medicinal purposes was a dominant theme of the 2022 election.

According to research carried out by campaign group End Cannabis Prohibition Jersey in the weeks before polling day, more than half of the 93 candidates said that, if elected, they would back a “more progressive” approach to cannabis.

More than a dozen favoured either decriminalising or legalising the drug, while about 40 said they would support some type of reform to current laws.

Decriminalisation would mean the drug was still prohibited by law, but an individual would not be prosecuted or criminalised for carrying a certain amount. On the other hand, legalisation means that the once-banned substance would be permissible by law and there would be no penalty associated with it.

The year before the election, the then-Health Minister Richard Renouf said that the decriminalisation of cannabis “will happen at some time”.

In February this year, the States Assembly signalled its acceptance to take a lighter touch on sentencing, when it approved legislation amending the Misuse of Drugs (Jersey) Law 1978, enabling Centeniers to address repeat offences involving personal amounts of Class B and C drugs with fines.

This meant the offending could be dealt with at parish hall level instead of resulting in a court appearance and criminal conviction.

The JEP this week emailed all States Members asking whether they supported the decriminalisation or legalisation of the drug as well as a review of penalties under the Misuse of Drugs Law.

Deputy Tom Binet Picture: ROB CURRIE. (37650977)

Deputy Binet (above), who has held the role of Health Minister since January, said: “Certainly decriminalisation would make a lot of sense.”

He argued that “the principle is right” and that doing so would help avoid “giving kids criminal records”.

“Rather than spending money jumping on people for doing it, you can take an educative and curative approach,” he said, adding: “We will be looking at this further as we progress into the term.”

Deputy Farnham said he was still unsure but added: “I’m not against decriminalisation as long as we have the evidence that it won’t cause more harm than good. We need to make properly informed decisions that can be fully debated by the States Assembly.”

Deputy Lyndon Farnham Picture: ROB CURRIE. (37650980)

Assistant Home Affairs Minister Richard Vibert, meanwhile, said that the idea of decriminalisation was “an interesting one because clearly you don’t want, for example, young people to get a criminal conviction”.

He added that he was “absolutely in favour of people not receiving a conviction for possession offences” but that “total decriminalisation is a different subject”, as there were many factors to be considered, such as the strength of the cannabis strains in circulation.

Assistant Chief Minister Malcolm Ferey said he supported decriminalisation to the extent that young people “should not have a mistake earlier in their lives stay with them as a criminal record” and “prevent them from pursuing other opportunities later in life”.

However, he added that he did not support changing legalisation as it would “put us out of step with many other countries” and was “not the correct approach to dealing with drug use as a medical concern”.

Regarding the Misuse of Drugs Law, he commented: “We definitely need a root-and-branch review of our drugs laws to ensure that they are fit for purpose and have the emphasis on harm reduction at their source.”

Former Environment Minister Hilary Jeune also said she would back a “full review” of the penalties under the Misuse of Drugs Law and would also support decriminalisation.

She continued: “In fact, it is quite far down that road already due to our honorary system here, keeping most instances out of the criminal system. This could be enhanced and go further and ensure it is consistent in all parishes.”

Commenting on legalisation, she added: “I would be happy to see a review done to move towards legalisation and what this would look like for Jersey, with lessons learnt from other jurisdictions (Netherlands, Portugal, Canada) firmly at the centre of any proposals to ensure we develop the best model for Jersey.

“I would like to ensure that in a legalised system, any cannabis entering Jersey for (legal) consumption had not been produced illegally in another country and/or under unethical, criminal and environmentally destructive practices.”

Deputy Sam Mézec, the leader of the Island’s largest political party – Reform Jersey – said he supported decriminalisation, legalisation and a review of the drugs law penalties.

The party’s “New Deal” manifesto states that: “We will seek to establish a progressive ‘Substance Use Strategy’ focused on the principle of harm reduction and ensuring the provision of information and education on drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and appropriate health care for those with substance use problems.

“We will support the decriminalisation of cannabis as part of a wider harm reduction strategy, as there is a growing body of evidence that criminalisation is counter-productive and more costly in the long run.”

In the latest Weekend Essay on pages 16 and 17, End Cannabis Prohibition Jersey co-ordinator Simon Harrison pointed out that Islanders were continuing to use cannabis, regardless of the current approach.

He noted that the topic was still surrounded by stigma and claimed he was “yet to come across a legitimate argument” for the drug to remain prohibited.

Deputy Inna Gardiner said she supported decriminalisation and legalisation, although she noted that she backed the latter “in principle”.

She continued: “It will be very complex.

“We need to carefully consider it, including all safeguards. It must be a regulated, licensed system, similar to alcohol. It must include extensive public consultation.”

She added: “This will be almost impossible to do without working with the UK as we are part of the Common Travel Area.

“Whichever way we choose to go, the reduction of social harm has to be our ultimate goal.”

However, not all States Members were in favour, with Deputy Sir Philip Bailhache, a former Attorney General who has also served as a Deputy Bailiff and Bailiff, raising a range of concerns, particularly over the effect the drug could have on mental health.

“The legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis is not a subject that can be reduced to simple propositions. As we know from research and professional advice, there is a risk that cannabis can have a deleterious effect upon mental health.

“We have spent huge efforts as a community to discourage the use of tobacco on the grounds of its impact upon people’s health and it seems to me foolish to leap into talking about the decriminalisation of cannabis without knowing much more than we do about all the implications.”

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