This British tax haven has proven to be a lucrative destination for criminals over the years.

Hannah Willey and Karli Wellington drove off the ferry towards Guernsey’s customs’ checkpoint. Inside their Audi, there was 1.2 kilos of cocaine and four kilos of cannabis. The drugs had been double vacuum-packed then dipped in white spirit to hide their scent from sniffer dogs. 

But it was no use, as a Border Agency official pulled the girls over for questioning, while his colleagues deftly searched the vehicle. It wasn’t long before the officers found the island’s biggest ever class A drug haul behind a door panel: a discovery that would net the pair a combined total of 20 years imprisonment.

The young women belonged to a well-established Cornish organised crime group (OCG) suspected of making regular drug importations to Guernsey, the Crown Prosecutor later alleged, and they were set to earn a huge £10,000 from this endeavour alone.

Why peaceful Guernsey?

Many criminals regard the Channel Islands as the jewel in the crown of European drug markets. Spending months planning how to navigate past the customs checks, and years building up the skills required to work in this lucrative marketplace.

Enticed by heavily-inflated drugs prices, these OCGs work closely with a constantly-evolving group of wealthy island criminals to earn profits that far outstrip those available on the British mainland or continental Europe. They buy a kilo of MDMA or ketamine for a few thousand pounds in Britain, France or Holland, then net £30,000 for their haul once it’s landed on Guernsey soil. And amphetamine, which costs £1,800 for a 70 per cent purity kilo on the darknet, tends to sell at an 11 per cent purity for £20,000 in the Bailiwick.

The street price of ecstasy pills regularly reaches £35 in the Channel Islands, compared to the usual fiver on the mainland. And cocaine often sells for £260 a gram, while cannabis fetched up to £100 a gram during last spring’s lockdown, court reports show.

It’s possible to earn around the equivalent of England’s median annual salary – which was £31,277 in 2021 – by exporting a single kilo of illicit drugs to Guernsey, so it’s easy to see why people are tempted to operate in this profitable setting.

Unsurprisingly, the Bailiwick has seen its fair share of drug busts over the years, as opportunists capitalise on the buoyant local market for illicit substances. From MDMA hidden in whiskey bottles to thousands of pills concealed inside computer monitors, there have been many failed attempts to satisfy the demand for recreational drugs.

It’s no different on the neighbouring island of Jersey, where Scouse drugs boss, Curtis Warren, was arrested in 2009. The former Toxteth resident – who appeared on the Sunday Times Rich List – was caught at the heart of a conspiracy to import £1 million worth of cannabis. He’s still in jail after failing to pay the £128 million Proceeds of Crime Application instigated by the Royal Court. 

Why are illicit drugs so expensive on Guernsey?

Guernsey is only 90 miles from Southampton and 60 miles from Normandy: and it has both a ferry port and an airport. Brits don’t even need to flash a passport on arrival. So what’s making illicit drugs so expensive on this easily accessible island?

Ironically, it’s heavily-enforced prohibition. 

Vigilant border controls and a hefty police presence means it’s extraordinarily difficult to import and source recreational drugs in Guernsey, the island’s law enforcement claims. This supposedly heavy approach to controlling illicit substances is often heralded in States of Guernsey annual reports, court hearings and news articles.

It’s hardly surprising that officials are keen to push this narrative, as studies consistently show that the greatest deterrent to drug supply is the perceived likelihood of being caught. But controversially, the States of Guernsey also issues exceptionally lengthy prison sentences as a ‘deterrent’ to traffickers. The local judiciary is adamant that long jail terms serve to reduce the supply of illicit substances in the Bailiwick. 

Hannah and Karli’s co-defendant – Chris Beare – received a 19-year jail term in March 2022 for planning the anticipated handover of drugs. This is a stark contrast to England where a trucker received a 19-year prison sentence in 2021 for importing half a tonne of cocaine.

Small-time dealers receive a jail term too, even if they’re only busted with a few ounces of a class B drug. Summer Bienvenu, a 38 weeks’ pregnant mum to a toddler, was sentenced to two-years and four months in prison during August 2021: she was convicted of supplying 84 grams of cannabis to friends. 

And a young DJ and mother of a primary-school aged child, Ellis Pike, was sentenced to five years and nine months imprisonment in March 2022 after cops found 109 MDMA capsules and 34 grams of weed at her house.

People who use drugs risk long jail terms

Being caught in possession of even a tiny quantity of class A drugs is almost certain to lead to jail time, a report by Professor Harry Sumnall of Liverpool John Moores University notes. A total of 68% of drug possession offences in Guernsey result in a custodial sentence, compared to 4.3% in England and Wales.

A nurse with PTSD was sentenced to three years in prison for ordering 3.8 grams of cocaine and 15 Xanax pills in the post during summer 2020. And 22-year-old chef, Hayden Price, was given three years in prison after being caught with one ecstasy tablet. 

Volteface spoke to Chris Beare who is in Guernsey’s Les Nicolles Prison, after his drug importation conviction. He says, “Most of the people in here [prison] for small amounts of drugs had really good jobs before getting arrested. I’ve met a banker, an engineer, business owners… But even the threat of jail and losing their career or house hadn’t deterred them.”

Darknet purchases come with a hefty risk

This tough stance on the possession of controlled substances is compounded by the fact that Guernsey’s Royal Court doesn’t differentiate between personal use and supply in drug importation cases, arguing that any importation adds to the ‘available stock’ on the island.

Three defendants tried to overturn this case law in October 2021, but they were unsuccessful with the Royal Court stating, “We have little doubt that if we were to relax these guidelines to identify a lower starting point for small amounts of drugs there would be an increase in drug trafficking activity with criminal gangs packing drugs in smaller amounts to take advantage of the higher rewards available through selling drugs in Guernsey.”

The Royal Court failed to cite any evidence to support this deeply-held belief. And in fact, there’s significant empirical evidence to highlight the inaccuracy of this controversial claim.

Professor Alex Stevens of the University of Kent says, “It sounds as though this legislation is targeted towards a supply model that relies on street corner dealing to get drugs to consumers. But this form of selling has been in decline for years, due to the rise of smartphones and the internet.”

Critics fear that by failing to amend the legislation that requires the court to ignore whether a defendant’s importing for personal use or profit, policy-makers are bringing more people into contact with the justice system due to the evolution of the 21st-century drug market towards digital orders.

And regarding whether harsh sentencing deters traffickers, Professor Stevens explains, “It’s a criminological truism that the harshness of sentencing has little effect on levels of crime or re-offending. What matters is the swiftness and certainty of punishment. The reason that this is a truism – applying across all types of crime – is that it’s been known for centuries and it’s been demonstrated repeatedly across crime types.”

“In drug law enforcement, we often see ineffective and harsh sentencing, while the certainty and swiftness of punishment remains very low. A tiny proportion of drug offences lead to arrest. Those that do tend to take months to drag through the courts,” he remarks.

Professor Sumnall comments: “It’s important that legal responses are proportionate, targeted and have the intended effect. If the objective is to reduce drug-related harms to the offender and others, then a prison sentence is unlikely to be successful.”

Strict policing and sentencing are making criminals richer

OCGs capitalise on this perception of harsh policing – and big jail terms – to justify charging vast prices for illicit drugs whether it’s at an import or street level. Without this extra cash, they’d simply supply customers on the mainland or in neighbouring countries where they perceive the risks are lower, they say.

A 20-year-old male from Birmingham, who was convicted of importing class B drugs to Guernsey in spring 2021, remarked, “Strict borders and high prices go hand-in-hand because traffickers want payment for risk. And the greater the perceived risk, the more money is demanded.”

This profit-driven strategy works well in the Bailiwick, as the median weekly household income is £1058 – compared to the UK’s £575 – which means that a £35 ecstasy pill is a low percentage of the average salary.

Like in Australia, the demand for illegal drugs on Guernsey is relatively inelastic, with a change in price causing a much smaller percentage change in demand. And this means severe punitive consequences have simply led to big prices that – ultimately – fail to deter consumers, but make criminals richer.

The former Birmingham-based trafficker explains, “Drug prices in Guernsey are so high that you could lose two or three packages, but still make massive cash if you get the fourth one through: it’s the same concept as throwing a parcel over a prison fence in England. And if you’re a confident professional who’s been in the game a while, that’s appealing.”

Former undercover drugs detective, Neil Woods, is part of LEAP UK, an organisation for law enforcement professionals who seek an end to drug prohibition. He says, “The British government’s international comparators report  assessed drug policy and concluded that levels of punitive action have absolutely no impact on consumption.”

“Based on decades of law enforcement experience at LEAP, it’s clear that harsh penalties actually increase exploitation and corruption,” he notes, “and the bigger the threat of punitive state action in a prohibitive system, the bigger the push back of brutality and ruthlessness from organised crime. Policing never reduces the size of the market.”

Heavy punitive sanctions haven’t led to a reduction in drug-based harms

Though the perception of tough policing and sentencing makes dealers richer, the evidence suggests it’s failed to reduce drug-based harms. Guernsey has the same number of people attending drug support services per 100,000 of the population as the mainland. And this uncompromising stance on illicit substances has inadvertently fueled prescription drug abuse, as vulnerable people look to cheaper alternatives including Xanax and valium, the island’s drugs and alcohol strategy coordinator says.

A quick browse through court reports shows a roaring trade for substances that are commonly mis-sold or used as a substitute from 4-CEC and 3-MMC [ecstasy] to MDMB-4en-PINACA and ADB-BUTINACA [cannabis], suggesting that the only winners of this strict prohibitive system are the OCGs.

Even in lockdown, when Guernsey spent nearly a year-and-a-half closed to all but essential visitors, local residents could source illicit substances as dealers adapted by using the postal system. Officers seized as many drug packages in the post during the first five weeks of 2021 as they did in the entire first quarter of 2019, Guernsey Border Agency reports.

On the tiny neighbouring island of Sark with its population of 600, the outgoing top cop – Mike Fawson – said there’s no way of stopping drugs being smuggled onto land and reaching the community, proving that even the smallest of places isn’t impenetrable to traffickers.

All of which begs the question of whether Guernsey – and the rest of the world – should acknowledge the futility of trying to completely eliminate illicit substance use, and instead find more realistic ways to manage drug-related harms?

Rebecca Tidy is a freelance journalist specialising in criminal justice and drugs. Prior to this, she spent a decade researching policing and drug policy at Plymouth University and the University of Exeter. Tweets @DrRebeccaTidy

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