Photo: Leon Neil/AFP via Getty.
A drug smuggler was told his £90 stash of drugs was worth nearly £1 million – because he had travelled for three hours on a ferry.The controversial valuation, which raises questions about how law enforcement estimates potential drug profits in court cases, was uncovered by VICE World News during a series of hearings in a case involving a British man caught smuggling 30 grams of synthetic cannabinoid powder into Guernsey, an island in the English Channel.
The man, who concealed the drugs in two capsules in his rectum, had travelled on a ferry from Southampton in May 2021. Guernsey, off the coast of north-western France with a population of 62,000 people, is not part of the UK and has a separate legal system, but defence and foreign relations are managed by the UK. In a witness statement seen by VICE World News, a senior customs officer at Guernsey Border Agency said the 30 gram stash – worth as little as £90 in the UK – could have been sold immediately to dealers on Guernsey, a three-hour ferry trip away, for £30,000.But the statement went further, saying the stash could in fact generate £900,000 on the island – a mark up of almost 1 million percent. It said this could be possible if the powder was converted into 67 litres of Spice-infused vape juice and sold in 10ml cartridges at £120 each. On the strength of the officer’s statement, prosecutors said the defendant, bodybuilder James Bickley, 32, faced being jailed for up to 20 years. Yet a drug evaluation statement from an independent expert witness Darrell Jones, who spent two decades on international drug trafficking cases for London’s Metropolitan Police and the UK’s National Crime Agency, described the Guernsey Border Agency’s evaluation as “hard to comprehend, totally unrealistic and unfair”. Jones’s statement said the overblown evaluation could “mislead a court in respect of potential value and revenue”. He said: “I am not aware of any drug anywhere in the world valued at the price that [the officer] offers for this synthetic cannabinoid.”
During the hearings there was no evidence put forward to suggest Bickley was going to turn the Spice, most commonly sprayed onto herbs for smoking, into vape juice. A toxicologist revealed that the 30 grams smuggled in by Bickley was unlikely to produce more than two litres of vape juice. The over-inflated valuation meant Bickley spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention on Guernsey, while a team of lawyers engaged in protracted legal arguments over the Border Agency’s evaluations. At sentencing on Thursday however, Guernsey’s Royal Court chose to ignore the Border Agency’s higher evaluation of the smuggled drugs. Bickley was given a sentence of four years and three months for drug importation – still very high compared to the UK itself – consisting of three years and six months for the drug importation and an extra nine months for failing to provide authorities with the passcode to his mobile phone.Defence lawyers persistently asked the Crown Prosecutor in Guernsey for evidence to justify the huge valuation, but these requests went unanswered. And despite being forced to back down by the Royal Court due to their refusal to evidence this claim, Guernsey Border Agency remains adamant its valuation is accurate, insisting it’s based on years of confidential local intelligence reports that are too sensitive to be seen by the courts.
Guernsey is well known for having strict drug laws and expensive drugs. This is why it is such a tempting target for smugglers willing to take the risk for high profits. Yet Bailiwick Law Enforcement, the authorities on the island, have consistently been caught out trying to exaggerate the value of drugs in order to facilitate big sentences. Over the last year, Guernsey Border Agency has given cannabis a street value on the island of up to £100 a gram and cocaine of between £260 and £360 a gram. But drug users on the island say they regularly buy weed at £15 a gram and cocaine for between £100and £120 a gram. Last year Jamal Williams and Qasim Shafaq successfully challenged claims by the Guernsey’ Border Agency that they smuggled Spice worth between £517,000 and £670,000 onto Guernsey during December 2020. In a hearing last January, the authorities were forced to accept that 5.58 litres of the substance is worth a tenth of that on the island.Commenting on the Bickley case, Rob Ralphs, a professor of criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, who specialises in the synthetic cannabinoid trade, said: “I find this valuation incredulous. Synthetic cannabinoids are commonly bought in the UK for around £40 an ounce [28 grams]. Therefore, the [Guernsey Border Agency] estimates appear to be a significant over-estimation. Cheapness is one of the main drivers for the use of Spice. But the prices per gram quoted would make it much more expensive than premium quality cocaine powder.”
A spokesperson for Bailiwick Law Enforcement said: “The drug trafficking expert witnesses employed by the prosecution, while they are serving Guernsey-based Law Enforcement officers, are impartial. They are asked to offer their opinion to inform the Court on the local position for potential methods of distribution and use, together with a valuation of the drugs involved. They are trained to the UK accredited drug trafficking expert witness standard and are members of a UK wide association of fellow expert witness officers“The Bailiwick’s position is unique and very different from all our surrounding jurisdictions. The drug market is not comparable, even with other jurisdictions of a similar size. For this reason local experts are used who have the full picture of what is actually happening at street level in the islands.“The experts are asked to provide a range of valuations to give the court all possible returns on an importation. These prices are an accurate reflection of the drug market in the Islands at the time of the importation. Valuations are made with the available information at the time of writing and the experts will always be open to reviewing their valuations in light of additional information such as analysed purity levels.”