France’s national motto, dating back to the French Revolution, is “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” How the two finalists for the French presidency embody those principles depends on how you define them.
Liberty can mean freedom from tyranny, but tyranny can take many forms: an overreaching government, poverty, or, in a sense, addiction to harmful and illegal drugs. Equality can mean everyone is treated the same under the law, or that potentially harmful vices are punished equally. Fraternity can mean solidarity among people with common interests, or it can mean people helping each other in ways such as helping drug addicts find drug rehabs instead of putting them in prison.
Politics often turns on semantics. Now that the French election has come down to the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and En Marche!’s Emmanuel Macron, perhaps they will better define their differences on a host of issues, including illegal drug policy. In France, that debate mostly concerns cannabis.
Where Do the Candidates Stand on Cannabis?
According to Forbes, the number of French people who use cannabis daily is 700,000, while twice as many report using it 10 times a month. Consumption is high: cannabis is the most used (or abused) illegal drug in the nation, and a 2010 study found that more than 13 million French people had used it at least once in their lives. Yet the laws against cannabis are among the harshest in Europe. A 2016 Ipsos poll found that 52% of French people favour legalisation in some circumstances.
Marine Le Pen is the stricter of the two candidates. She rejects any change in the narcotics laws – even calling cannabis legalisation (by prox,y through presidential campaign director David Rachline) “a completely crazy idea” – besides, perhaps, making them stricter.
Emmanuel Macron has made his position rather murky, but at the very least it seems more liberal than Le Pen’s. Confusion over Macron’s position derives in part over semantics (particularly over how one defines legalisation and decriminalisation, and in part because he is a politician. He opposes “legalisation” (removing all penalties) and tends to avoid using the word “decriminalisation” (keeping it illegal, but not to the extent of imposing a fine of thousands of euros or a year in jail for simple possession) for fear that it will sound like the same thing.
Macron told La Provence that he is not in favour of legalisation of cannabis, citing evidence of harm to a young person’s cognitive abilities. But to reduce congestion in the courts, he would have the police impose a more lenient fine on the spot, 100 euros or so, rather than arrest them, as the law allows – or look the other way, as is often the practice.
The Benefits of Decriminalisation vs Legalisation
In a 2011 interview, University of Paris economist Pierre Kopp estimated that the reduction in arrests for cannabis alone would save the French state at least 300 million euros. Duties on cannabis sales could generate another billion euros, all without increasing the number of people using cannabis. A portion of those funds could go into drug rehab for more serious dependencies.
Another motivation for legalisation is to dry up the illegal market, according to economist Christian Ben Lakhdar. Decriminalisation in the Netherlands, Lakhdar found, protected criminal networks as well as users. With legalisation, if the cost of legal cannabis is low enough, it is no longer profitable for criminals.
But while cannabis is the most used illegal drug, it’s not the only one. While opioid prescription pills are not as much of a problem in France as in the United States, heroin, related opioids, and reused needles do cause overdoses and spread HIV. Since 1989 France has had free needle exchange programs. Now it has tentatively embraced providing needle users with a safe, monitored place to shoot up.
A ‘salle de consommation de drogue à moindre risque’ (room for low-risk drug consumption) or SCMR – what Harm Reduction International calls a supervised injection site or safe-injection site – is a walk-in centre that provides drug users with clean equipment to use their own drugs. In case of an overdose, the staff can quickly administer the anti-overdose drug naloxone. The expected cost for these French sites is 1.2 million euros annually.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, such safe shooting galleries have resulted in reduced crime in the neighbourhoods and fewer overdoses. In fact, no such sites anywhere in the world have reported any deaths from overdoses. While they are not drug rehabs, they do succeed at harm reduction.
Following a spate of overdoses in the first year, Vancouver’s supervised injection site started testing some of drugs first, and discovered that many of the heroin addicts’ stash contained fentanyl – a far stronger opioid than heroin or morphine that many drug dealers substitute because it is cheaper. It is so deadly that police officers can overdose just from skin contact, as can drug-sniffing dogs.
More Harmful, but Legal
Prescription opioids are legal, although heroin, like cannabis, is not. Some experts consider other legal substances more harmful than cannabis: tobacco and alcohol. According to a European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction report, both have worse health risks, social risks, and potential for addiction than cannabis. The French often mix cannabis with tobacco.
Both Macron and Le Pen – as have many politicians in the US – seem to discount the likelihood that cannabis may have actual benefits. While its widespread illegality has made extensive scientific testing difficult, limited evidence suggests that cannabis can help chronic pain sufferers and others. It may even be of use in drug rehabs, helping addicts quit opioids without severe withdrawal pains.
In the United States, cannabis has been legalised for medical use in 29 of the 50 states. Canada is planning to legalise cannabis nationwide. Even in France, eventual decriminalisation or legalisation is considered inevitable. Instead of fighting it tooth-and-nail, politicians left, right, and centrist should be looking for the best way to do so, properly regulated and researched, before it becomes a fait accompli.
Source: 420Intel – Politics