The islands are on a journey with cannabis – the sooner we reach the destination, the better for all

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Opinion: Gavin St Pier

Weed. Spliff. Reefer. Ganja. Bong. Pot. Marijuana. For 60 years, these were the terms that typically might have been used when cannabis came into a conversation: the slang terms around a prohibited substance that was bad for you and a gateway to something far worse.

THC. CBD. Cannabidiol. Terpenes. Flavonoids. These are just some of the terms in the more recent 21st-century lexicon of cannabis. We are all now learning that the conversation around cannabis is a tad more nuanced than we once thought – or were told. Who knew that cannabis had 120 components or cannabinoids? And it turns out a few of them not only are not bad for you, but can help you? CBD is a psychoactive cannabinoid but is non-intoxicating and non-euphoric, so doesn’t give you a ‘high’.

It is used to reduce inflammation and pain; ease nausea, migraine, seizures and anxiety. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. THC is responsible for the ‘high’ that most people associate with cannabis. Multiple products containing only CBD, THC or a combination of both are now available legally as gels, tinctures, oils, capsules and a whole lot more. Cannabis-based treatments are available on prescription and clinics are popping up in both Jersey and Guernsey, hot on the heels of established retail outlets.

Not only is the public perception of cannabis being transformed from gateway-to-hell to wonder drug, it’s being hailed as a potential economic holy grail too: diversifiers for our economies, over-dependent on financial services; and high-value sources of jobs and tax revenues that can revitalise horticultural sectors that had pretty much moved from being an industry to being heritage. The industry is growing up, literally and metaphorically. Jersey Hemp was the first and many others have followed in both islands. In a sign of maturity, growing respectability and confidence, this year has seen the formation of its own industry association, the Channel Islands Cannabis Industry Association, apparently as ‘the collective voice representing and promoting the cannabis industry and providing a channel of communication for discussions and negotiations with regulators and government bodies’. Even better, corporate profits are taxed at 20% – on this, Guernsey led the way and Jersey followed.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of jurisdictions are moving to decriminalise or even legalise the use of recreational cannabis. As the whole world reorientates itself to this new-world order, there are still some major inconsistencies and road bumps. In 2019, the World Health Organisation made some recommendations that some CBD should not be subject to international controls and, in 2020, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted to remove cannabis from some (but not all) parts of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Meanwhile, businesses with cannabis interests struggle to get banking facilities as financial services organisations work out what on earth all these developments mean for their compliance within a myriad of national anti-money laundering rules. In short, there are very mixed messages.

Nevertheless, both islands continue to incur substantial sums in law-enforcement costs in seeking to control and punish illegal, recreational use. In addition, we have another slightly unique wrinkle to work our way through. Taking advantage of our natural island borders, given the tight controls on illegal drugs, the street price of cannabis in the islands is higher than in the UK. In the UK, with the cost of medicinal products being higher than the street, there is little risk of diversion from the medicinal market. In the islands, the position is reversed. So, as medicinal cannabis products flow into the island in increasing quantities – with, literally, thousands of prescriptions each month in each island – the risk of diversion of at least some of these products for unauthorised use is real, large and growing. The financial incentives for those receiving these prescriptions are significant. The products can be expensive, so the temptation to part (or even wholly) fund their cost by selling on some of the prescription is to be expected. There will be a growing inequity between those who can afford prescription cannabis products and those who can’t. Those who can’t, will rely on the islands’ governments to fund non-cannabis alternatives, which may be less effective for some conditions and may even be more expensive. This is an unsustainable position. On the one hand, as evidence grows of the efficacy of some cannabis-based prescriptions, pressure will build for these to be publicly funded. On the other hand, attempting to control any diversion will require ever greater resources in what will be a forlorn attempt at control and enforcement.

The direction of travel across the world is clear. Most jurisdictions have already recognised that, in some forms, cannabis is a force for good – when harnessed in the right way for the right individuals with the right conditions. When used recreationally – which remains illegal in most jurisdictions – it is increasingly recognised as being no more, and arguably less, of a ‘gateway’ drug to something harder than alcohol or tobacco, both of which come with far greater cost to government budgets as societies pick up the fallout from their use, in terms of health and law-enforcement costs. There are also some interesting ethical questions. We don’t countenance or condone the production of illegal moonshine, so for how long are we prepared to continue to allow our communities to continue to acquire and consume illegal substances of dubious origin, quality and content? Is there not a responsibility to ensure that this practice is as safe as possible?

We are on a journey which has started and on which it has already been recognised that cannabis has many advantages for our island communities – new industries and skills, new sources of taxation and new prescription drugs. The only coherent and logical destination is to recognise that 60 years of prohibition has failed and cannot continue alongside a legal supply of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products. Like it or not, we will end up treating recreational cannabis in the same way as alcohol or tobacco: it can’t be successfully banned, so we will legalise, regulate and tax it. And the quicker we get to that conclusion the better.

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