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High Hopes: Towards a Loosening of Marijuana Laws in France?

Stores selling products made with cannabidiol (CBD), one of the active constituents of cannabis, are proliferating in France. A growing number of French politicians and hundreds of thousands of citizens hope this is the way to full-blown legalization.
© John Holcroft

Anyone visiting France in recent months will have noticed the proliferation of stores selling products made with cannabidiol, one of the active constituents of cannabis. Since the end of 2020, the number of CBD outlets in the Paris metropolitan area has increased threefold, while the nationwide total is estimated at 400. And, according to the magazine Newsweed, a new store opens each week, despite – or arguably because of – the Covid-19 pandemic.

The trend is all the more surprising since France has some of Europe’s strictest laws on marijuana. Yet, in what might be described as the second French paradox, it has the highest rate of consumption of the drug. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the estimated percentage of French adults using cannabis is 44.8%, compared, for example, with 29% in the U.K. Regular attempts have been made over the past three decades to change the country’s legislation, but they have been thwarted by fierce opposition, especially from politicians. So how did CBD manage to make its way to la Grand’ Rue – French Main Street?

Although cannabidiol is a component of marijuana, by itself it does not cause a “high.” On the basis of that distinction, several entrepreneurs started to open stores in the mid-2010s offering a range of CBD products, from resins and oils to teas, cookies, and anti-stress cures. But elected officials and law enforcement, considering all such products as narcotics, shut down the shops and slapped fines on their owners. Among those prosecuted were the directors of a French company, Catlab, that sold a vaping product containing CBD legally grown and extracted in the Czech Republic, a European Union member state. The two defendants appealed the ruling before a French court, which referred the case to the European Court of Justice. In November 2020, the ECJ ruled that CBD should not be considered a narcotic because it does not “have any psychotropic effect or any harmful effect on human health.” Cue a spate of store openings (and re-openings) across France.

The court’s decision may have wider-reaching implications for cannabis legislation in France. Arguing that the current laws are no longer fit for purpose, elected representatives from several parties are trying to change the terms of the debate. In early January, the National Assembly launched an online consultation on the recreational use of cannabis to sound out attitudes to public policy. And a parliamentary committee has been set up to examine the ways in which cannabis is used and regulated. Particular attention is being paid to health issues and outcomes, particularly since at least 30 countries authorize the drug for therapeutic purposes. More recently, the mayor of Reims, Arnaud Robinet, came out publicly in support of trialing the decriminalization of cannabis in his city. Robinet is one of a group of elected officials who favor a fresh approach to the question.

There is, of course, stubborn resistance to change. Responding to an official report noting the failure of prohibitive legislation and recommending legalization, the then health minister voiced her opposition on the grounds that her main concern was the fight against tobacco consumption. The national academies of medicine and pharmacy issued a joint critique of the proposals. And when the interior minister was questioned on the same topic in a radio interview, he was more forthright: La drogue c’est de la merde, on ne va pas légaliser cette merde (Drugs are shit, and we’re not going to legalize that shit). As for President Macron, he has made it clear that cannabis will not be legalized during his term of office. Nevertheless it seems that attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly. The members of the parliamentary committee, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens who responded to the consultation, are determined to ensure their efforts do not go up in smoke.

Article published in the May 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.