Is France Turning Laissez-faire About Legal Cannabis?

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

At the start of a new year, confidence is running high about Europe’s participation in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry. Understandably enough, no one on the continent demonstrates more savoir faire with the situation than do stakeholders in France, the largest national market in Europe.

Though France has traditionally been among the continent’s most intransigent countries in opposing cannabis, it begins 2021 with an encouraging initiative.

A group of politicians has launched a project designed to test the viability of cannabis legalisation. On January 13, a ‘citizens’ consultation’ was launched, with 175,000 people petitioning on the French Parliament’s Assemblée Nationale at the time of writing – many more than expected – with the consultation open until February 28. Its findings will be published in a report in April.

The consultation is intended to counsel the French public about cannabis, and the questionnaire emphasizes harm reduction, including drug-related crime. Ironically, one consequence may be to demonstrate how much less France’s political leaders tolerate recreational cannabis than does the public at large. President Macron is against decriminalisation, and has ruled against legalisation while in office, consistent with earlier French governments. This consultation is intended to have an impact on the upcoming 2022 presidential election campaign.

As New Frontier Data has reported, France features the highest rate of cannabis use in Europe, with 2016 data suggesting that 41% of its citizens  aged 15-64 had consumed it at least once, as compared to the overall European average of 18.9%. That alone underscores France’s paradoxical policy stance, made even more dramatic when a neighbouring state like Spain has advanced cannabis reform so much further. Legalisation advocate Riobin Reda of the Les Républicains party has called out “this repressive stance” as being untenable – particularly given that France spends €568 million per year in its fight against cannabis trafficking.

Change has been given impetus by two recent events: last November’s ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union that the combustible Kanavape CBD should not be classified as a narcotic (and therefore not banned in France), and a pending research trial of medical-use applications to begin by March 31.

For French cannabis producers, meanwhile, cultivation is acceptable if it contains no more than 0.2% THC and does not include cannabis flowers. Reda has conversely recommended the creation of a “French production line” to enable France to avoid any dependence on foreign producers.

Despite France’s conservative governmental stance, a recent survey by French newspaper Le Parisien found that half of the mayors in Paris favour legalising cannabis for recreational use.

Until recently, France’s tough legal framework featuring custodial sentences and high fines remained a legacy of 1970s policy. Last year, however, the government softened some of those penalties, however, including opting for spot fines of €200 for possession, a signal of stepping closer to the approach of countries like Portugal, which claims beneficial societal effects from its decriminalisation of drugs.

Still, there has been some pushback about the consultation. A group of 80 members of the French parliament  blanched at the possibility of legalisation , arguing in an open letter that dealers would turn towards more dangerous substances and warning about rises in social and mental health harms including “psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, school failure, dropping out of school, [and] dropping out of society”.

France’s moves, however tentative, may well be judged against its neighbours. Germany, the other key country in the EU and the largest country (by population) at 83m, does not expect recreational cannabis to pass for several years, and one survey suggests that cannabis legalisation is unpopular. Other countries close to France, including the small bordering nation of Luxembourg, have respectively played with the idea of legalisation. In Switzerland, another border neighbour ( with a part-French speaking population, at that), relaxation of cannabis legalisation is underway with some areas (i.e., cantons) able to supply  cannabis to users through pilot programmes.  In Spain’s capital, Barcelona, the cannabis club movement has become a lifestyle among cannabis advocates. Whatever the immediate results of its consultation, the likely effects will be to soften attitudes and broaden aptitudes about legalized cannabis in France.