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Wednesday May 19, 2021

By Paul Barach


For a nation known primarily for fine wine, fine cuisine, and general disdain of other nation’s wine and cuisine, the French love of marijuana has flown under the radar. France reportedly has the highest level of cannabis consumption amongst its citizens in all of continental Europe, with rates of use around 11% as of 2017. This is despite the French government’s strong anti-cannabis stance, handing down some of the harshest penalties for getting caught with pot on the continent.

However, the French government’s stance on cannabis may be softening. As a possible hors d'œuvre to future legalization, France is launching their first medical cannabis study since the 1950s. Over the course of two years, 3,000 patients will be supplied with medical marijuana to test the beneficial effects of the plant on their conditions. 

Is this France’s first step towards medical marijuana legalization? How exactly is this study being run? Will France join their neighbors in decriminalizing cannabis? Possibly. But first, it’s important to understand the historical context of France’s cannabis prohibition. 

Why Is Weed Illegal in France?

France’s history with cannabis dates back to 1798 when Napoleon’s soldiers invaded Egypt. The troops started smoking pot because there was no wine to be found in the Muslim country, or any alcohol at all. One can assume that due to the soldier’s subdued vibe, Napoleon was distrustful of this new drug. Future French governments shared his views. The Colonial French believed that marijuana caused violence, insanity, and criminal behavior in the North African Muslims they had subjugated. In a depressingly familiar Anslinger-esque vein, they termed it “folie haschischique,” which basically translates to “[reefer] madness.” 

France's negative stance on cannabis can be rooted back to Napoleon. photo credit

Although French doctors began using cannabis tinctures in the 19th century, it never went mainstream. The plant was banned for medical use in 1953 after French doctors found that it didn’t cure cholera. We have no idea why this was the breaking point.

When the French Empire dissolved in 1970, French politicians voted to ban all marijuana use across the nation. This was partially due to fears of an influx of Arabs and Africans into their country from former colonial territories. Because marijuana use was culturally tied to Muslim Arabs, criminalization became another way to oppress the minority population.

Today, half of the nearly 70,000 prisoners are Muslim men of Arab descent, despite making up only 9% of the population. One in six of those prisoners is estimated to be incarcerated for cannabis.

France has only increased their crackdown on cannabis since the 1970s. As of 2010, 86% of the 117,421 drug arrests were for cannabis possession or distribution, and annual arrests for cannabis use skyrocketed to just under 140,000 in 2015. Possession can result in a year in jail and a 1,450 Euro fine. Trafficking can be up to ten years and a 7.5 million Euro fine

The pushback to this policy has been growing for years.

Medical Study

Medical marijuana advocates and researchers have been pushing for a medical study since 2013. Last year, in an open letter published in the news magazine L’Obs, dozens of French economists, politicians, and physicians denounced the bankruptcy of the anti-cannabis laws and pushed for legalization. This was followed by the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council releasing a report calling cannabis prohibition a failure and recommending legalization on economic grounds.

Despite marijuana’s abject failure to cure cholera, the French medical establishment is willing to try again. 

Starting in March 2021 and continuing for the next two years, 3000 French citizens will be supplied with free cannabis products in order to treat their medical issues. The cannabis products are supplied by foreign companies partnering with the government and will include pills, oils, and dried flower, but patients will not be able to smoke any product.  

A tincutre, some weed leaves, and a stethoscope
This medical study could hopefully influence the future of medical marijuana legalization in France. photo credit

The study only accepts patients suffering from serious illnesses for which other forms of medical treatment are insufficient or not considered effective enough. This covers issues such as epilepsy, chronic pain, or multiple sclerosis. Cannabis will also be prescribed to patients who are dealing with the secondary effects of treatments like chemotherapy

This is not considered a drug study, since no patients will be given a placebo in order to double-blind test the effectiveness. Instead, researchers and doctors will be monitoring patients frequently, including the amounts they’re using, the benefits they report, and how often they’re consuming cannabis. 

After two years, the researchers will determine whether the cannabis products were able to address the needs and treat patients in ways that other medical interventions could not. The hope is to further convince France’s government and medical establishment that their skepticism about cannabis is unwarranted. 

What is The Future of Cannabis In France?

Will France join neighboring Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland in fully decriminalizing allowing the recreational use of cannabis? In the national spirit of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” and an effort to test the waters for future cannabis legalization, the French government launched a public consultation regarding legalization earlier this year. Over 200,000 citizens have so far responded (the normal amount is 30,000) and we can assume the overwhelming feedback to legalization is “Oui, s'il vous plait.” With growing popular support from the public, local politicians including half of Paris’ mayors, and an election coming up next year, France may begin the long process of decriminalization. 

In the short term, 3,000 people who are suffering may experience some relief impossible without medical cannabis, which is a victory in and of itself.

What do you think will come of France’s legalization efforts? Chime in in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dmitry_Tishchenko (license)


Paul Barach Paul Barach

Paul Barach is a Seattle-based freelance writer, editor, and author with experience creating well-researched, edited web articles covering cannabis news, culture, history and science. Paul is a regular contributor to PotGuide and has also contributed to publications such as, SlabMechanix, Litro, and The Trek. He prefers to spend his free time outdoors and most recently hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. So far he has only fallen into the La Brea Tarpits once. You can follow him on Instagram @BarachOutdoors and stay up to date professionally through his LinkedIn page.

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