Is France's cannabis debate stuck in a cul-de-sac?

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Jun 21, 2007
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A new parliamentary report recommends legalising the cultivation and consumption of cannabis in France. But one leading critic of international drug policy doubts that the debate will inspire a sea change in French policy.

The issue of legalising cannabis is once again making headlines in France following the release of a parliamentary report on Wednesday recommending that the drug should be subject to “controlled legalisation”.

The report, compiled by an opposition working party, recommends that the cultivation and sale of marijuana should become a state-controlled activity, like the sale of alcohol and tobacco, and concluded that the government could not continue to “advocate the illusion of abstinence”.

The report has some support within the opposition Socialist Party, although two Socialist candidates for next year’s presidential campaign, Ségolène Royal and Manuel Valls, have spoken out against the proposal.

The conservative ruling UMP party has largely rejected the findings, the party consensus being that legalising or decriminalising cannabis would increase the number of users and that traffickers would move into distributing harder drugs.

French inflexibility

According to a leading critic of international drug control policies, the legalisation debate -- which is raised in France regularly -- is unlikely to gain much ground because of France’s inherently inflexible, top-down political system.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the US-based Drug Policy Alliance, welcomed the report, but was not optimistic that France would adopt the kinds of policies that have led to decriminalisation in countries like Holland and Portugal.

In Switzerland and Germany, he argued, local initiatives had paved the way for a change in political attitudes. While drugs remain illegal in these countries, addiction is often seen more as a health problem than a criminal activity.

Not so in France, Nadelmann said, where policymaking tends to come from the higher political echelons and where “there is much less opportunity for local innovation and citizen activism”.

Prohibition 'has never worked'

Psychiatrist Alain Rigaud, head of the French National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, said he believed prohibition had proved to be counterproductive and called for the debate to be taken seriously.

“Prohibition does not work and has never worked,” he said. “Decriminalisation does not augment consumption -- that is a mistaken assumption made by politicians who advocate prohibition.”

“Look at the Netherlands -- cannabis is decriminalised there and consumption has not exploded," Rigaud said. "Portugal, where one is allowed to carry cannabis for personal consumption, has one of the lowest consumption rates in Europe.”

France, on the other hand, is one of Europe’s biggest cannabis consumers. It also has some of the toughest anti-drug laws. The country has 1.2 million regular cannabis users (smoking more than 10 times a month) and 3.9 million occasional users (at least once a year). That figure has quadrupled since 1990.


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