Medical Marijuana: Can France Learn From the American Model?

The French Health Minister has announced that France is lagging behind the United States and that medical marijuana could soon be legalized in France. Journalist Michel Henry, author of Drogues, pourquoi la légalisation est inévitable sees it as a necessary change.

France-Amérique: You wrote in 2011 that “legalization is inevitable.” How did you reach this conclusion?

Michel Henry: Neither prohibition nor repression is effective. France has very strict legislation on this matter — the consumption of cannabis is an infraction punishable by one year in prison and a fine of 3,750 euros — but the French are the leading consumers of cannabis in Europe. We should look to other systems. The wave of legalization that began in the United States in 2012 proves my hypothesis: 30 states and the District of Columbia now authorize the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

The Americans are often seen as timid when it comes to societal issues and yet they have addressed the question of cannabis more than the French…

The Americans are more puritanical than the French, but they are also more pragmatic. Growing, distributing, and selling marijuana represent a major financial resource for private companies and the states themselves. Local communities have understood that there is a market to be exploited, and U.S. lobbies have also played a major role. Ethan Nadelmann, a former professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, founded the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit organization that campaigns for an end to the “War on Drugs.” Nadelmann is the spokesperson for the movement for the legalization of cannabis and has been able to convince major sponsors and politicians. This type of lobby does not exist in France.

But some groups are fighting for the legalization of cannabis in France. Do they lack the proper organization? Or sufficient political support?

The French collectives NORML France and the CIRC along with the Terra Nova think tank are active players, but they still lack impact. Several doctors including Amine Benyamina, William Lowenstein, and members of the French Addition Federation are also promoting this cause via the media, but the National Academy of Medicine continues to ignore their reports. No organization has stepped up to coordinate the pro-cannabis movement as is the case in the United States, and French politicians are refusing to take a stance. They are scared of alienating voters by making a statement in favor of legalization. In 2006, the Parti Socialiste mentioned a “public regulation” of cannabis — in other words, control by the government — but did not include it in its manifesto for the 2007 presidential election. Emmanuel Macron himself even mentioned the benefits of legalizing cannabis in 2016, and yet now promotes a “zero tolerance” policy.

Could the increasing popularity of industrial hemp (or CBD cannabis), which is less potent but legal, open the door to the legalization of medical marijuana?

Thanks to its low THC content (less than 0.2%, compared to 20% for strains of recreational cannabis), hemp is not considered to be a narcotic. Some people experience a relaxing effect not dissimilar to those produced by anti-inflammatory drugs. CBD cannabis is currently available to buy in e-cigarette stores and a number of specialized outlets. The product sold in France is grown in Switzerland where a major production and processing sector has developed. The Creuse region in France already grows regular hemp for the textile and food industries and is now campaigning for the right to grow CBD cannabis. The industrial hemp laws remain vague: the substance is not prohibited, but the government is considering it.

The U.S. federal system and the division of the country into autonomous states facilitated the movement to legalize cannabis. How could this same movement take root in France?

France is a centralized country, which means all healthcare questions are managed by the government in Paris. As a result, any local initiatives are unlikely to succeed. However, if farmers in the rural Creuse region start growing CBD cannabis with the support of agricultural unions, local officials, and members of the French parliament, the government would not be able to ignore them. The goal is to create a tolerance for farmers growing CBD cannabis. And this tolerance could be the Trojan horse that will pave the way for the legalization of medical marijuana, and then recreational cannabis.

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