IN 1975, The Bulldog opened its first shop in Central Amsterdam, becoming one of the first cannabis “coffeeshops” in the Netherlands. Today, owner Henk de Vries runs a chain of very popular shops, including non-cannabis bars, cafés, and lifestyle stores, under the same banner – even operating out of a former police station in the city centre.

Facing an escalation in narco-trafficking, drug-related harms and gang violence in the late 1960s and early 70s, the Dutch government sought to separate “hard drugs” from “soft drugs”, the latter covering cannabis.

They turned to more radical solutions, landing on what was considered extremely progressive for the time, but also an imperfect fudge of policy. These “coffeeshops”, while not considered legal due to their black-market supply chains, were tolerated by Dutch authorities, on the condition that they did not cause a nuisance to the surrounding area.

Over more than 40 years, as The Bulldog grew into one of the most recognised cannabis brands in the world, the attitudes of Dutch policymakers evolved, rejecting “decriminalisation” and choosing an experimental, time-limited “legalisation”. Rather sensibly, this legislation was introduced in 2017 as a politically palatable pilot programme, colloquially known as “The Weed Experiment”.

Recently in Jersey, there has been a lot of discussion around assessing the benefits and risks of decriminalising or legalising cannabis for “recreational” or “adult use”.

Firstly, why consider this at all? What is wrong with the current situation?

In many countries around the world, there has been a realisation that punitive policing of illicit cannabis use and sale is not working. A large part of this is due to shifting public opinion – driven by the medical benefits of the drug which are being increasingly recognised by healthcare providers. This is resulting in a wave of legalisation (both medical and recreational) moving from the West to the East.

The US and Canada are leading the charge, but policy reform is now reaching the shores of Europe and we are seeing a number of European countries applying differing strategies.

In major European countries, public opinion in favour of legalisation is now over 55%, which is the threshold the stats of Washington and Colorado passed in 2012 when they became the first US states to legalise.

Jersey has already taken a step forward with regards to legalising medical cannabis and an industry is starting to form around this.

However, non-medical cannabis use is illegal and we – as most developed nations do – have a high proportion of the population using the drug illegally. This demand is being met via the black market and it is likely organised crime is also involved. We have seen the likes of Liverpool drugs baron Curtis Warren targeting Jersey due to the significant profits they can earn here. This is likely to continue unless we do something different to address it.

What are the options Jersey could consider if we decide we do need to do something different?

Decriminalising the drug as they did in the Netherlands in the 1970s is one option and it is potentially a stepping stone towards wider legalisation. There are no doubt benefits to decriminalisation, however there are downsides, as the supply chain remains illegal and it could continue to attract criminals to address the demand. There are also no safety or quality controls over the products and generally the government has less control of the market compared to legalisation.

I would like to offer up another option, which would allow a fully legalised supply chain, more control over the quality of the cannabis being supplied, controlled dispensing and the recording of data to assess how it impacts a number of areas, such as levels of crime, under-age use and the wider economic benefits it could deliver. This option is also time limited, so we can dip our toes in but pull back if the results are not sufficiently beneficial.

I am the chief executive of Green Island Growers Ltd, a licensed cultivator and manufacturer of medical cannabis in Jersey. We are, and always will be, a medical cannabis business and our core markets will be Germany and the UK (and hopefully in due course locally to Jersey patients).

Over the past few years, we have spent a lot of time understanding the cannabis landscape in Europe and this has given us an insight into how different countries are legalising not only medical cannabis but also recreational cannabis.

We are working closely with a group of experts who are deeply researching and assessing the various recreational markets which are being developed in Europe and I have recently returned from a visit to the Netherlands where I saw they are going to legalise their “coffeeshops”. What we saw there was bold, progressive and well-thought-through.

This experimental concept of controlled cannabis legalisation is not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon, but it is distinctly European.

In 2022, the Swiss government granted its first licences under a pilot legalisation programme. Today, customers in Zurich, Basel and major Swiss cities can access cannabis legally through a mix of distribution channels – from pharmacies to social ‘ clubs and private retail shops. Nine hours north, the German senate, the Bundesrat, is debating a piece of legislation that would implement a seven-year pilot legalisation programme in Germany.

In our view, the most interesting model, and one which we think Jersey should consider, is something similar to the Swiss pilot projects.

A controlled, well-defined and scientifically robust pilot project that examines the impact of access to recreational cannabis in Jersey. This initiative would fall under United Nation allowances for licensed cannabis activities that are for “scientific purposes”, provided that the scheme is appropriately designed, implemented and time-limited.

These pilot projects have the following features:

•Time limited (up to five years).

•Limited number of participants.

•Registered participants.

•Domestic, licensed cultivation (international drug conventions don’t allow recreational cannabis to cross international borders).

•Licensed and controlled dispensing via pharmacies.

•Collection of data to measure the benefits of the project (such as health, crime, economic benefits, under-age use, quality).

Jersey already has the necessary infrastructure in place to carry out a pilot project. It has licensed producers, cannabis clinics and pharmacies dispensing medical cannabis. Jersey could use the same infrastructure and controls already in place, but open up access to a limited number of participants outside of those with a medical need.

The reality is that cannabis use is common today and supply is ubiquitous – and not for a lack of policing. A pilot programme looks like the best approach to regain some control, and is a negotiated middle ground for those who want cannabis in society and those who don’t want cannabis in society.

It ensures that the supply chain is fully legal via highly regulated and controlled licensed producers in the Island, which includes ensuring that the cannabis going onto the market is safe and free from harmful chemicals.

The dispensing would be controlled via track-and-trace systems, which clinics and pharmacies already use. The persons accessing it would be registered and they would be able to provide valuable data on the consumer effects and social impact. This model also features strong government oversight of activities.

There are also likely to be significant economic benefits via additional local employment and taxes, as well as a potential ripple effect to the wider economy, such as discrete consumption lounges, which would benefit local people, local businesses and the government, rather than overseas organised-crime networks.

Further benefits could include reduced police time and money on trying to crack down on illegal drugs (given that cannabis is the most widely used), and not destroying people’s lives and employment prospects by criminalising possession and personal use.

It also is likely, if implemented correctly, to have an impact on how Jersey is perceived. If Jersey did this, we wouldn’t be the first but we would be closely following behind the first wave (picking out the best models), so would be seen as progressive and in tune with a trend which is happening globally.

For those who might rightly be nervous about this move, given it is time-limited and data-driven, we would be able to assess its impact and, if the results are negative, Jersey could simply not extend or widen the project at the end of its term (or early if required).

Any government that implements a pilot project is giving future governments a chance to make an evidence-based decision on wider legalisation – but the work has to start now.

‘ The reality is that cannabis use is common today and supply is ubiquitous – and not for a lack of policing. A pilot programme looks like the best approach to regain some control, and is a negotiated middle ground for those who want cannabis in society and those who don’t