France is Europe’s biggest cannabis consumer, despite having some of the continent’s toughest laws against the drug. In response to this failure of the law to act as a deterrent, a group of MPs from across the political spectrum have launched an initiative to shift the terms of the debate on this issue.
The first step in these MPs’ bid to encourage the French political class to be more open to the idea of legalising cannabis was a citizens’ consultation launched on January 13. More than 175,000 people responded on the Assemblée Nationale’s website – compared to an average of 30,000 responses to such consultations.
This consultation, open until February 28, has two objectives: to better understand the French public’s views about cannabis, and to understand what government policies on the drug people want.
It poses a dozen questions including: “Do you think current policies on cannabis are effective in fighting against drug trafficking?” and “Do you think the risks associated with cannabis are the same as, more serious than or less serious than those associated with alcohol consumption?”
“We’re using this questionnaire so that we have access to more data on what people think than we usually get from opinion polls,” Caroline Janvier, an MP in President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party (LREM) and a member of the parliamentary committee on cannabis.
“Perhaps it will confirm our belief that France’s political class is less sympathetic to the use of recreational cannabis than the public,” she said.
Successive French governments have shown themselves to be strongly opposed to decriminalisation. When the prime minister’s office’s economic advisory group published in 2019 a report on the “failure of prohibition”, proposing the legalisation of cannabis, the government reacted strongly. “I’m against legalising cannabis,” said the then health minister Agnès Buzyn. “I’m currently waging a fierce campaign against smoking, so I’m not going to decriminalise marijuana, which has the same effects as cigarettes.”
“Drugs are shit,” said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin when questioned on the subject in September 2020. “We’re not going to legalise this shit.”
‘Changing the terms of the debate’
France has the highest rate of cannabis use in Europe. In 2016, 41 percent of French people aged 15 to 64 had consumed it at least once – compared to the European average of 18.9 percent.
“Cannabis use is so widespread in society; we have to respond to that at a political level,” said Robin Reda, an MP in the right-wing party Les Républicains and chairman of the parliamentary committee on cannabis. “No one should be happy with our current policy when this repressive stance is clearly not working.”
“Our primary goal is to change the terms of the debate,” Janvier said. “Many politicians don’t think of it as much of an issue, but France spends €568 million per year on the fight against cannabis trafficking.”
Pro-cannabis voices often say that the drug is useful in healthcare. More than 30 countries have authorised its therapeutic use. While he was still a backbench MP, Health Minister Olivier Véran put forward an amendment to allow France to experiment with medical marijuana.
But the government slowed down the implementation process as much as possible; it did not give the green light to the policy until October 2020.
“There’s a big gap between what MPs have been willing to do and what the government has been willing to do,” Reda said. “The amendment on experimenting with therapeutic use is supposed to come into effect, but I’m convinced that the government will do everything it can to drag its feet and ensure that as few people as possible get to use marijuana on this experimental basis.”
The medical patients concerned are not the only ones who are disappointed: so are the French cannabis producers who made a bet on being able to make money from what the legislation allows. It permits the cultivation of the cannabis plant provided that it contains no more than 0.2 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. On the other hand, it’s forbidden to include cannabis flowers, which contain CBD, which has a relaxing but not narcotic effect.
“In our report on therapeutic cannabis we recommend the creation of a French production line,” Reda said. “This would allow France to avoid any dependence on foreign producers, to better certify the quality of products and to provide farmers with an additional source of income.”
The public consultation on cannabis will be looking into health risks, the consequences of illegal trafficking and security issues. “We would like to put different options on the table; perhaps not all of us will agree with the answers that come up, but in any case many of us think the status quo is unacceptable,” said Reda.
The findings from the consultation will be published in a report in April.
Macron has ruled out legalising cannabis while he is in office. But the work the pro-legalisation MPs are doing is intended to “have an effect on” the 2022 presidential election campaign, Janvier said: “I hope it will change the kind of policies on cannabis that politicians feel they can endorse.”