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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Is There Hope for Reasonable Drug Legislation in France?

What happened, Macron? You used to be cool.

Despite the news in France currently being dominated by labor market reforms and the protests against it, drug policy reform remains majorly important the country of croissants and baguettes. On the question of legalization of marijuana, Macron is attempting to soften the repressive drug policy that is applied in France until now. This makes supporters of progressive drug policies ask the question: will France’s approach to the war on drugs change in the next five years?

Reform Is Needed

When it comes to the consumption of drugs, France keeps a rate similar to its love for baguettes and cheese. Marijuana use in the République is the second highest on the entire European continent, even higher than that of Portugal or the Netherlands, both of which have decriminalized cannabis.

France is known to be one of the most repressive countries on the old continent when it comes weed. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction, cannabis consumption is most popular with 15 to 24-year-olds, one-third of whom reported use in the last year. This seems especially surprising to policymakers, as France is known to be one of the most repressive countries on the old continent when it comes weed, with penalties of €3,750 and up to one full year in jail for possession of more than 50 grams. Lower amounts are less likely to yield such harsh punishments, but ultimately this decision is up to law enforcement officers. A 2014 report by the French parliament’s Public Policy Evaluation and Control Committee estimated the cost of the war on drugs to be €2 billion––a staggering 0.1 percent of GDP.

With drug consumption on the rise and 50,000 people in France making their living as weed dealers, all eyes are on president Macron on the issue of marijuana. Often seen as a progressive, France’s youngest president since Napoleon III is expected to act against the advice of his former competitors in the presidential race. Both conservative François Fillon and nationalist Marine Le Pen had rejected the idea of legalizing marijuana and even suggested (in the case of Le Pen) the war on drugs should be made more severe.

Macron, on the other hand, is preserving his image as the young and dynamic leader. In a photo-op with the prime ministers of Canada, Luxembourg, and Belgium at a NATO conference, Macron joined “the gang” of the young and progressive.

The only difference is that Belgium and Luxembourg have taken considerably more relaxed stances on marijuana. The fines are lighter, possession of personal amounts are accepted, and comprehensive legislation carves out the difference between “soft” and “hard” drugs. Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau reportedly plans to legalize weed next year.

The Chance to Step Up

So what are the new French president’s personal views on the matter? In his 2016 book Révolution, Macron explains that “it is senseless to systematically repress the consumption of marijuana,” and that “a system of classifying by misdemeanors would be sufficient in this regard.”

Macron’s first acts on marijuana seem tame in comparison to his young and dynamic friends in Canada and the Benelux region in Europe. But when the threat of conservative voters leaving his En Marche-train became more real, Macron’s comments become increasingly ambiguous. In an interview with the conservative newspaper Le Figaro in February, Macron praised a “zero tolerance” policy on cannabis, saying “I don’t believe in decriminalization for little quantities, nor do I believe in symbolic sentences. It doesn’t change anything.”

The manifesto of his party then backed the position of declaring possession as a misdemeanor in the campaign for the parliamentary elections, with multiple spokespeople contradicting each other. On the party’s website, the category regarding legislation/decriminalization of marijuana is empty: no policy proposal is available online.

Macron’s first acts on marijuana seem tame in comparison to his young and dynamic friends in Canada and the Benelux region in Europe. At the end of May, a French government spokesperson announced that it will end prison terms for the consumption of cannabis: despite being a positive step, this will only apply to the people who are not suspected of dealing drugs. In practice, it is unlikely that the number of drug offenders will go down as a consequence. This month, the police, as well as the French National Observatory for Drugs (OFDT), have criticized the plans making marijuana consumption a mere misdemeanor. As of now, the government still has not acted on the issue.

Regardless of the swiftness of this reform, France is likely to see only very little change on the issue of marijuana legislation in the next five years, despite the appearance of the most “progressive” president in a long time. Emmanuel Macron will roll with the security of the status quo, not out of conviction, but out of mere political strategy. The fact that the French president has backpedaled on his initial position out of opportunism sadly tells a lot about the spinelessness of “centrist” politicians.

  • Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. His work has been featured in several outlets, including Newsweek, Rare, RealClear, CityAM, Le Monde and Le Figaro. He also works as a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.

    Learn more about him at his website