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Amid Drug-War Chaos, France is Reconsidering Its Cannabis Policies

Published on December 1, 2016 · Last updated August 17, 2022
A vintage looking skyline photo taken in Paris France. The Eiffel Tower is to the right of the frame with dramatic clouds in the sky as a background.

Autumn brought chaos and confusion—but also hope—to France’s cannabis community. The season saw an increase in drug-related urban violence, police defeated by trafficking groups, a former Drug Czar and Home Office minister urging for reform in the Senate, the father of a girl illegally treated with cannabis speaking out, and hopeful changes in public opinion about cannabis.

The country’s policy of prohibition has been widely accepted by the French population for a long time, but that’s changing. In 2012, 60 percent of residents aged 18 to 30 opposed simple decriminalization of adult-use cannabis. But an opinion poll from this past October shows that a full 84 percent of the population over age 16 now thinks the 1970 anti-narcotics bill is ineffective. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they thought government-regulated cannabis sales would be preferable to the current system.

Signs that France is finally taking cannabis reform seriously emerged this summer, but a recent series of events has sped the shift. Beyond the increased number of shootings between drug trafficking groups, mostly smuggling hashish from Morocco, the new climate of violence conveyed by the terrorist attacks appears to overflow into these groups. On Oct. 19 police officers in a neighborhood of Lyon were brutally attacked in what seems to be a counter-offensive strategy from the black market.

Police had announced earlier that they had exerted “real pressure on drug trafficking, resulting in a certain number of arrests within days.” But the attack could also have been a response to the use of “anti-criminality police brigades,” which specialized in catching cannabis criminals redhanded based on ethnic profiling.

A similar attack happened in the Paris area on Oct. 8, leaving a police officer in a coma. The police response was a bit of a surprise: While hundreds of masked officers staged nighttime demonstrations in several cities, others openly challenged both the country’s cannabis policy as well as law enforcement techniques.

To a population deeply concerned about terrorism in the wake of attacks, this urban violence appears largely unnecessary and avoidable. This shift in public opinion, as well as the opinion poll and the recent statements by the country’s drug czar. reveal a major change in the French political landscape. Sen. Esther Benbassa of the Europe Écologie Les Verts (Green) party, knew it was coming.

After 2014, Benbassa had to undergo a period of political shock and isolation after her proposal to regulate cannabis was rejected by fellow senators, mocked by the media, and strongly opposed among the progressive political parties she hoped to get support from. But all this didn’t extinguish Benbassa’s desire to stir up Parliament on the issue. She commissioned the recently published opinion poll and used it to push the French Senate, a bastion of the punitive approach, to consider cannabis reform anew.

Together with Didier Jayle, who was the drug czar under President Jacques Chirac between 2002 and 2007, Benbassa set up a hearing in the felted venue of the French Senate, featuring an impressive lineup of speakers. Titled “Are we condemned to the stalemate?” the seminar reviewed 45 years of enforcing the current cannabis policy and squarely denounced its failure.

Among the participants were a superintendent of the National Police, who advocated for community-oriented policing and an end to hunting down consumers and other small-time offenders; a reform-minded former minister of interior affairs; and scholars from some of France’s most prestigious universities. Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, highlighted the special need for medical marijuana programs. His point was underscored by testimony from the father of a young girl suffering from Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy, who is being treated successfully with cannabis in defiance of French law.

Whether in family dinner conversations or political debates, cannabis in France has never before been seen as an issue worthy of discussion. Media coverage has long been one-dimensional, hiding the complex reality of the debate. But finally the French seem to understand that the issue of cannabis deserves comprehensive debate. There’s more for citizens to consider than how they’d feel about their kid smoking a joint—for example the fact that legalization could cut off funding for terrorism, reduce urban violence, minimize health issues, and reduce the likelihood of harm among consumers.

But despite the speed of change, patience is still required. Asked by Leafly for a realistic forecast of actual policy changes, former Drug Czar Didier Jayle said he didn’t expect anything meaningful to occure before 2022, when the next presidential term comes to an end. Why? The first reason, Jayle said, is the “absence of clear willingness with the leading candidates to engage in this path.” The second is more fundamental: France, said Jayle, “unlike the USA or Switzerland, is a completely centralized state where local [changes] at a city, county, or regional level are impossible.”

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Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli
Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli
Kenzi is a French drug policy reform advocate and researcher at FAAAT (Foundation for an Alternative Approach to Addiction and Substance Dependence) who lives in Barcelona, Spain. He is involved in local campaigns in the Occitania (southern France) and Catalonia (northeastern Spain) regions and is a regular at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meetings at the United Nations in Vienna and Geneva. He focuses primarily on harm reduction issues as they relate to cannabis and on the cannabis social club model as a health-based approach to cannabis policies.
View Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli's articles
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