Increased French Cannabis Consumption Adds Pressure for New Regulations

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Despite its size and centrality in the European continent, France generally does not feature strongly in cannabis industry news – except in negative ways. Last month, for example, France implemented €200 on-the-spot fines for drug users – including users of cannabis – after trials in several cities including Rennes, Reims, Lille, and Marseille were conducted with a view to stopping drug trafficking, backed by fines of up to €3,750 and the possible sentences for a year in prison.

The strict legislative environment is said to have roots in President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to ramp up security in the country, and contrasts with more liberal attitudes among France’s neighbours, such as Spain. But folding in cannabis users with the law alarms French cannabis advocates, especially since France is thought to have the highest number of users per capita in Europe: With more than 40% of residents ages 15-64 claiming to have tried cannabis, that rate is more than 2x that of the European average, and up 21% since 1993.

While production of higher-THC cannabis remains illegal (despite France’s being the world’s second-largest producer of hemp) reports suggest that upwards of 200,000 people work in the cannabis market, indicating a thriving illegal economy.

Nevertheless, legality remains far off, and even CBD has faced difficulties. Two French entrepreneurs were prosecuted for selling vape products containing CBD – a ruling now being contested by the EU.

Such mixed messages follow a promising initiative set up last year. In July 2019, the French Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) inaugurated a committee to write the ground rules as a two-year medical cannabis trial was given a green light  to assess medical cannabis’ potential in the health system.

Recently, Robin Reda, a member of the French National Assembly and part of the committee, warned as the trial lagged that France had “fallen alarmingly behind its European neighbors” in terms of medical cannabis. He blamed “bureaucratic blockage”, and a “centralised constitutional structure… the stigmatisation of cannabis users and also a very conservative medical establishment.” Fifty doctors, scientists, and patients supported his view and rebuked the government for its tardiness.

The proposed two-year trial aimed for a sample of 3,000 people to try medical cannabis, with seven North American companies tendering to supply. Canadian companies looking at the potential for the wider French market include Tilray, Canopy Growth, and Aurora – the idea being to plant proverbial flags in the French supply chain in the wake of the trial.

With France’s highly protective agricultural and culinary heritage, it is perhaps surprising that the country is so unfriendly to cannabis cultivation. France’s wine and food industry brought the idea of “terroir” to the world – meaning that the produce contains unique characteristics of its place, backed by an ”appellation of origin” and Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) rules, establishing trust in quality and origin. Yet to date, the only cannabis cultivators deploying the idea of terroir and PGI are in California, where Mendocino County growers are promoting cannabis appellations with a view to marketing produce from “Cannabis Country”.

Despite the government, however, producers in France are clearly interested in cannabis’ market potential.  The cooperative union InVivo, the French market leader of hemp, hopes to launch medical cannabis production in greenhouses, and – along with smaller producers – hopes to invigorate the market, with the central department of Creuse earmarked as a production site. France, which has long favoured domestic producers, has concerns that Canadian companies Aurora, Aphria and Wayland are making their designs on a future market, and French MP Emmanuelle Fontaine-Domeizel has already advocated for a ”made in France” cannabis marque, benefiting domestic farmers and producers.

The French state is also being urged by the Conseil d’analyse économique (CAE) think tank both to legalise recreational cannabis and create a French monopoly for distribution, claiming that it would raise an estimated revenue of €2.8 billion per annum with the potential to create 80,000 jobs – and help France shift toward more liberal attitudes and a more open regulatory culture.

There is some optimism among start-ups. The cannabis tech company Rainbow recently closed a funding round of €1 million to launch two wellness brands in the U.K. and France – Kaya, and Peace & Skin, respectively – devoted to relaxation and stress. Benefitting from Canada’s strong French links and relationship, Tilray bought French CBD specialist firm Green Leaf last year. It has been also noted that many former French colonies – including Lebanon and Morocco – are big cannabis producers, suggesting that France could benefit from their historic links.

While France may thus far be slow on the uptake, it has an interesting historical backstory as in the mid-19th century capital Paris was the epicentre of an international movement to medicalize hashish with edibles, lozenges, tinctures and “medicinal cigarettes” for sale.