Study after study has revealed that France is Europe’s number one consumer of cannabis. And, though this interest has turned the country into a budding market, recent regulations may put growth on pause. Beginning this month, cannabis users in France will be penalised with a €200 on-the-spot fine if caught with the plant.
The initiative has its roots in Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign and has already been tested in smaller towns throughout France. Already, activist groups and private businesses have protested the new ruling.
As it stands, the French cannabis industry may be in trouble.
The root of the new cannabis law in France
Though the law has been in place since 1970, the recent update will expedite punishment.
Called ‘le loi du 31 Decembre’, the original ruling has three essential objectives. Legislators at the time sought to repress drug trafficking, to limit the use of narcotics, including cannabis, and also to offer anonymous aid to those who needed help escaping addiction.
In sum, it’s France’s version of prohibitionism. And, as such, it has earned many critics and supporters.
The law has been modified throughout the past fifty years. In the late 1980s, for instance, the law was fortified to increase the severity of punishment for selling and distributing narcotics. Additionally, if officials could tie cases of money laundering to drug trafficking, they could increase the severity of the punishment.
Penalties for such offences ranged from a small fine to up to a decade in prison.
In the 1990s, the French government continued to attack drug trafficking, both locally and nationally, by focusing on the financial aspect of these operations. The Decree Law of 22 February 1990, another update to the original law from 1970, made the possession of cannabis as grave as carrying heroin.
Though the legal system assessed the user’s history as well as the amount of the drugs, the lack of distinction between these substances raised alarm among many pro-cannabis activists.
Skipping ahead to the election of Emmanuel Macron in May of 2017, the current French president has made cannabis a large part of his mandate. The only problem with this mandate, however, is that it has taken a nearly 180-degree turn since he moved into The Élysée Palace.
Upon his election in spring, Macron declared that cannabis would be fully decriminalised come winter that year. Though this never happened, economists in France have urged the president to reconsider the idea from a financial perspective. Instead of spending taxpayer money on petty crime, the government could potentially rake in €2.8 billion in tax revenue and create thousands of jobs.
The administration responded to this saying that it is against the legalisation of recreational cannabis use, but not against medicinal cannabis. A well-known centrist, Macron’s critics claim the French president has been caving to a growing populist right in the country.
The change of face comes full tour this month as the Macron administration, otherwise known as ‘La République en Marche!’ (LREM), has put in place strict, on-the-spot cannabis fines for users.
Cannabis users holding more than 100 grams will be fined €200 immediately. If they pay the fine within two weeks, it will be reduced to €150. If they wait more than 40 days, however, it will cost them €450.
Bechir Saket, a cofounder of L360, a non-governmental organisation working on drug reformation in France, told Strain Insider that the law turns police officers into both law enforcement and judges. ‘Before this new law, it could take police officers six hours to report the person caught with cannabis,’ said Saket. He added:
‘The main purpose of these fines is to reduce the amount of time for prosecution. But this will change the relationship between police officers and citizens. People can now be condemned on the sidewalk because the government now lets the police have the final say.’
Gradually, then suddenly
The latest adjustment to cannabis laws didn’t happen overnight. In fact, conversations around on-the-spot fines for cannabis have been happening in France since 2018.
The National Assembly voted in favour of this law on November 23, 2018. At that time, members of both the left and the right parties condemned the vote as either being too repressive or not harsh enough. Critics on the left also stated that the conversation is incomplete without the participation of relevant health officials.
Following the vote, and nearly a year later, various cities throughout France began experimenting with the rule. These cities included Marseille, Lille, Reims, Rennes, Creteil and Boissy-Saint-Léger. The key architects behind the law and its experiments are Éric Poulliat, Jean Castex and Gérald Darmanin.
L’amende forfaitaire #stupéfiants, pourquoi ? J'ai répondu aux questions de @CNEWS.
"Le développement des rappels à la loi conduisait à une « dépénalisation de fait » puisque l’usage de stupéfiants n’était plus sanctionné. L'amende permet ainsi une réponse rapide et effective" pic.twitter.com/A1c2Cb8VmI
— Eric POULLIAT (@EPoulliat) July 27, 2020
As Poulliat has been key to the formation and implementation of this law, some have coined the new fines as part of the ‘Poulliat law‘. He is also a leading figure in LREM. The irony of his initiative is that he has also written elsewhere that ‘repression does not work.’
Another feature of this law would see that victims’ personal information would be stored for up to ten years. This is because of a separate modification to another law.
In 2004, the French government created a system that would allow the automatic registration of personal data following various infractions. In April 2020, a modification was proposed to include mild infractions like traffic tickets and minor fines.
This modification would thus allow for the extraction of personal data if users were caught with cannabis.
Though slightly more complex, the law poses a threat to personal liberties. As reported by NewsWeed, a cannabis-centric publication for french readers, it is uncertain who would have access to this personal information as well as how effectively this data is removed from the system a decade later.
This analysis suggests that the Poulliat law simply creates yet another avenue to surveil French citizens. The second-order effects of this could be minor or major, including the prevention of certain citizens from renting a car or taking out a loan. Though this assumption is extreme, it is very possible.
And it is from this position that both pro-cannabis groups and human rights associations are standing up to the new on-the-spot fines.
The list of groups involved includes the Addiction Federation, the Human Rights League, ASUD, Doctors of the World, the Syndicate of French Lawyers, NORML France and is spearheaded by L360. Bechir Saket told Strain Insider that there are more than 20 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working together.
As previously reported, L360 has played an outsized role in moderating France’s medicinal cannabis discourse, specifically around the cannabis trial. ‘The pilot is going forward’, said Saket, ‘It’s very separate from these new on-the-spot fines, and it must stay separate from that discussion. We expect the trial to move ahead before 2022.’
The fight against prohibition is far from over, however.
‘Regulations on cannabis are becoming more and more important, becoming mainstream,’ said Saket. ‘The war on drugs is clearly not working, and this new law is the last chance for prohibition in France. We’ll see in a year if this works. If it fails, they won’t have any alternatives.’
In the meantime, there is little that citizens can expect in the way of immediate change.
Saket said that, if caught, people should keep calm, file a claim with their local court to contest the fine and to contact L360 to help navigate the laws. Next month, Saket and his team at L360 will also be presenting their case before the Conseil d’État.
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