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Will France Be Stuck with Cannabis Prohibition…Forever?

For 45 years, governments in France have held on to some of the harshest and most outdated cannabis policies in Europe. And even though change is happening all around the EU, with neighbors Spain and Italy pushing toward reform, it still seems hard for this “country of liberties” to escape the vicious circle of cannabis prohibition.

After a series of massive terror attacks on French soil, the world rose up in solidarity to celebrating the French values of freedom, fraternity, and equality apparently — qualities apparently targeted by the attackers. But those ethical values, inherited from the French Revolution, know one exception: the approach to drugs and drug users — and in particular, cannabis consumers.

Adopted on New Year’s Eve in 1970, reportedly by drunken parliamentarians feeling threatened by the growing beatnik movement, the French anti-narcotics act has remained largely unchanged since its inception. It continues to show its ugly face every day, and at least in some ways it’s getting uglier. Back in 1970, some 1,200 people were arrested for minor drug offenses (use or possession). That number has since ballooned to 200,000 annual arrests, with at least 163,000 for mere possession. Up to 1,500 cannabis consumers go to jail every year, and others face heavy civil sanctions. Possessing or consuming cannabis—including past consumption, even at home—remain criminal offenses, punishable by up to a year in prison and a €3,750 fine.

The consequences of these repressive policies make France stand out rather awkwardly against the backdrop of other EU countries.

Ironically, the “freedom of speech à la Française,” widely celebrated after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine, does not cover drugs. Presenting or talking about illegal drugs “in a favorable way” is punishable by a €75,000 fine and a five-year jail sentence. This provision is routinely abused by law enforcement officers, detaining individuals for wearing cannabis-leaf T-shirts and closing down shops who dare to sell cannabis-leaf mugs or key rings.

The obvious contradiction of between the policy and the freedoms enshrined in the French constitution has been pointed out, but it hasn’t moved the political needle. It hardly seems to matter if a left- or right-wing government is in power. The present government’s plan against drugs is one of the toughest ever, despite socialist President François Hollande’s supposedly softer approach.

A chapter in the current plan called “Stepping Up the Fight Against Cannabis Cultivation” includes the rather scary-sounding goal to “clear up generally accepted ideas about the ‘organic’ virtues of cannabis cultivated in this way” and to “offset the generally propagated image of cannabis cultivation as a convivial craft industry.” The plan proposes to create a “special surveillance on channels of access to cannabis cultivation,” such as specialty shops, websites, and mailed packages and freight.

The consequences of these repressive policies make France stand out rather awkwardly against the backdrop of other EU countries. Access to medical cannabis is still nonexistent, while consumption is among the highest in Europe and keeps rising. Poor-quality, expensive, potentially unhealthy hashish is about the only thing most consumers can buy.

At the same time, drug-related violence is exploding across France. And it’s no longer confined to neglected neighborhoods or cities like Marseille that have a reputation for smuggling and drug trade. The dealing and associated violence has spread even to downtown areas and calm, quiet neighborhoods.

So is France stuck in prohibition forever? The answer might be non.

A thin ray of hope emerged this summer, after French drug czar Danièle Jourdain-Menninger declared it “no more bearable today to have provisions in our Criminal Code providing jail penalties for drug use.” But what should have been big news went largely unnoticed by French and international media.

The United Nations’ special summit on drugs, held last April in New York, made yet another thing clear: The government acknowledged that France’s present cannabis policies are closer to those of some of the world’s most disreputable nations than to policies of most fellow EU members.

Less than nine months before the presidential elections, the acknowledgment by drug czar Jourdain-Menninger opened the door for a meaningful debate about the merits of cannabis prohibition. Emmanuel Macron, a possible candidate for the presidency, has already seized the opportunity, calling legalization an effective way to deal with current problems. Will France finally free its citizens of cannabis prohibition? Only time, and the mobilization of civil society, will tell.

Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli's Bio Image
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.

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