July 25, 2019

Liberté, Égalité…Legality? French government edges towards cannabis reform

2min read

Last month one of France’s most influential think-tanks, the Conseil d’analyse économique (CAE), recommended not only that France legalise recreational cannabis use, but also that the government form a monopoly to control distribution.

As pressure slowly builds for reform in one of Europe’s most stringent bastions of prohibition, the CAE, which reports directly to the French Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, called reform an ‘urgent matter’.

Professor Renaud Colson from Nantes University agrees, ‘to date most [politicians] have kept silent [about cannabis] although many are conscious of the failure of the current policy.’

The failure of prohibition is evinced by France possessing one of the largest consumer bases of recreational cannabis in Europe; over 40% of 15―64 year-olds claim to have smoked it (more than double the European average). ‘The prevalence of cannabis use has skyrocketed’ over the last half-century notes Professor Colson. ‘Police have prioritised stop and search of users leading to hundreds of thousands of arrests (mainly working-class youngsters, many of them French citizens from North Africa).’ This has led to suggestions that establishment attitudes to cannabis possess racist undertones associated with France’s former colonies.

Increased penalties over the past 50 years have come with huge costs: enforcement is estimated to cost almost €1 billion a year. The authors of the CAE report, meanwhile, lament the loss of potential tax revenues for the French state, estimated to be around €2.8 billion per annum. Analysts note that this windfall would be extremely attractive to the government of Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to cut taxes to stimulate economic growth while facing budget shortfalls.

The CAE boldly calls for government policy that should aim to ‘take back control’ of the industry from organised crime and hoover up vast swathes of the black market into tax-paying legal areas of the economy.

Perhaps just as important as tax is the potential job creation in a nation long plagued by unemployment, particularly amongst young people; the cannabis industry has the potential to create as many as 80,000 jobs.

The CAE’s plea, however, has been met with a firm rebuke from France’s Transport Minister, Élisabeth Borne, who asserted that ‘we are against legalising cannabis for recreational use.’

On the 11th of July, France’s National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) gave the green light to formally begin a trial period for use of cannabis-based medicine in the country’s health system. The ANSM has stated that it is now ‘committed to preparing, with the various government departments concerned, the technical modalities for the implementation of the experiment’.

A committee was established in September last year to analyse cannabis’ medicinal potential. This body’s positive findings and recommendations have led to the French state committing to a trial period of use on patients.

Government health advisors have suggested a two-year trial period in which licensed testing of medicinal cannabis on patients would be permitted, but with production still limited until at least 2021. Patient groups also fear that it won’t be available to many in need as the conditions that qualify will be severely limited.

‘Things have not changed until recently because politicians find it impossible to discuss publicly about the issue’ states Colson. He blames a number of factors for the French establishment’s deep suspicion of cannabis and the slow pace of reform: ‘the very centralised constitutional structure and process heavy political and legal systems, the stigmatisation of cannabis users and also a very conservative medical establishment.’

Despite this culture, the positive shift of broader European attitudes and norms towards cannabis and the weight of evidence from elsewhere are slowly nudging France to embrace a more open regulatory culture.

Liberté, Égalité…Legality? French government edges towards cannabis reform

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