Many U.S. states have legalized marijuana, while France is timidly preparing to authorize its medicinal use. But is this cautiousness justified?
Marijuana is a perfect illustration of the radical difference and rivalry between French and American societies. It should be noted that the very idea of prohibition comes to us from the United States, beginning with the prohibition of alcohol, a movement that first arose in the late 19th century led by feminist and Christian temperance advocates. This activism culminated in 1920 with a constitutional ban on all alcoholic drinks. In the same vein, in the early 20th century a coalition of pastors and labor unions demanded a ban on all marijuana from Mexico. The reason for this may appear absurd today: The consumption of marijuana was supposed to give Mexican workers extra energy, which was seen as a competitive advantage unfair to Americans.
The drug thus had racial connotations, which was even more the case in the 1920s when jazz, blackness, and marijuana merged in the popular imagination. During the same period, the French were indifferent to the prohibitionist movement. Wine is French, marijuana was a sailor’s habit, and opium came from our colonies in Indochina. In France, drugs were traditionally perceived as cultural phenomena and their use was an individual matter — until the Americans imposed their repressive code. Many are unaware that in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, the United States added a clause that defined, classified, and prohibited opium, and by extension marijuana, cocaine, and its derivatives. The world has since lived under this U.S.-made prohibition.
But we now better understand that every prohibition is accompanied by consequences unforeseen by its authors, and that the cure sometimes proves worse than the disease. In 1933, the prohibition against alcohol ended in the United States, but the ban on marijuana and opium remained. The result is an extensive, ongoing social and medical debate about marijuana that has been shaped by contrasting norms in France and the United States. In France, the government historically tends to decree what is true and just, and the status of soft and hard drugs is thus decided at the top. The debate about marijuana legalization is carried out among experts and in ministerial offices; it is barely mentioned in the media, and never in parliament. In France, what was forbidden remains forbidden. The slogan of May 1968, “It is forbidden to forbid,” has never been more than graffiti. And since marijuana is forbidden by the government, it follows that it must be dangerous and immoral; the old dogmatism of the Gallican church has been recycled as statism.
In the United States, the opposite is true. Societal changes and legislation start with pragmatic grassroots movements. The economist Milton Friedman, nicknamed “Uncle Milt” among partisans of the drug’s legalization, was the first in the 1960s to use statistical evidence to show that the disadvantages of marijuana prohibition were worse than its expected benefits. Since American society is run more on economic than moral principles, it is left to economists instead of moralists and philosophers to observe that prohibition creates adulterated drugs, en-riches gangs, harms poor racial minorities (more involved in trafficking than the white middle-class), and fills prisons with petty criminals.
These ideas, debated first by academics and then taken up by the American media, were later put into practice by popular associations, particularly NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), an anti-prohibition movement that combines public information, demonstrations, and even provocative actions. It should be recalled that the legalization of gay marriage succeeded in the same way in America, even though President Obama was hardly favorable to it originally. A judicial decision legalized these marriages, not the government; in France, the opposite was the case.
We find the same disparity between our two countries concerning marijuana. In America, local referendums based on popular initiative have imposed legalization in several states, first for “medicinal use” — a stepping stone to full legalization. But in France, a referendum on marijuana is inconceivable. The moral authoritarianism of the French government is nevertheless finally giving way to American pragmatism. This year the French will probably authorize the medicinal use of marijuana. But this experimentation à la française will not be preceded by a national debate as it was in the United States.
Another distinctive American feature, whether we attribute it to pragmatism or to the influence of economics, is the evaluation of results. In the 1930s, after prohibition was shown to be more harmful than legalization, prohibition was repealed. As for marijuana, the first trials with legalization, particularly in Colorado, are now being assessed with scientific precision. Liberals are troubled by the unintended consequences of legalization. Will there be a return to prohibition? This is doubtful, since the American criterion is not to reach what is good, but more modestly a lesser evil — which of course is a disappointment to the lovers of absolute truth who dominate in French social debate.
Beyond the posturing of French philosophers and American economists, let us add this to the discussion: Marijuana is not just a question of health or regulation. As the American psychoanalyst Thomas Szasz explained, every society is founded on prohibitions and transgressions. If marijuana is no longer the limit of transgression, what other prohibition will have to replace it? There is, after all, no absolutely free society. In the end, the fact that marijuana is legal does not mean we have to consume it: Free will is never dictated by law.
Op-ed published in the September 2019 issue of France-Amérique