NewsBriefs BUTTONS

France Approves Medical Marijuana Experiment, Debates Marijuana Decriminalization


January 1998

The French government will approve the use of marijuana in hospitals in 1998 as a experimental step towards relaxing the country's drug laws. In early 1998, discussions are to be held on the abolition of prison sentences, and possibly criminal charges, for possession of small quantities of cannabis and other soft drugs (John Lichfield, "France Will Allow Certain Medical Use of Marijuana," San Francisco Examiner, December 21, 1997, p. A4; "Cannabis Campaign -- France to Ease Drug Laws and Let Doctors Try Dope," The Independent on Sunday (UK), December 14, 1997; John Lichfield, "Cannabis Campaign -- France Hints at Legalisation," The Independent on Sunday (UK), December 7, 1997).

A 2-day national conference on drug abuse was held at the health ministry on December 14-15 with more than 200 doctors, drugs experts, scientists, teachers and social workers in attendance. The conference recommended that the 1970 drug law, which it described as "obsolete and inoperative" be abolished. The conference made 15 recommendations, including ending all criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.

Bernard Kouchner, the Health Minister, who personally supports decriminalizing marijuana, said there would be no such legislation in the near future. However, he promised "coherent steps on public health grounds" within existing law. Officials in the health ministry said last week that "coherent steps" would mean at least three things: (1) The authorization of experiments with cannabis use in a limited number of hospitals. (2) An order to authorities to ensure that prisoners addicted to hard drugs continue to receive appropriate treatment, including heroin substitutes. (3) Discussions between ministries -- health, interior and justice -- on a possible recommendation that the French courts avoid giving prison sentences for possession of marijuana and other soft drugs, which could lead to a recommendation of no more criminal charges for possession of small quantities of cannabis.

The 1970 law and 1995 penal code mandate up to one year in jail for smoking marijuana, and up to 20 years for marijuana cultivation. However, the law is laxly enforced. It is estimated that 2 million people in France use marijuana regularly and up to 7 million occasionally, but fewer than 6,000 prosecutions for cannabis possession are reported each year.

A Socialist-Communist-Green coalition has been governing France since June 1997. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said during his election campaign that he would, if elected, consider marijuana decriminalization. Dominique Voynet, the Environment Minister and leader of the French Green party, has called for total legalization of cannabis, and Elisabeth Guigou, the Justice Minister, supports a change in the drug law. Jospin's government has commissioned a study of the relative dangers of cannabis and other illegal drugs compared to legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

However, three very influential ministers -- Martine Aubry, the Employment Minister; Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the Interior Minister; and Claude Allegre, the Education Minister -- are opposed to any change in the drugs law. The centre-right President, Jacques Chirac, is also deeply opposed to any change of the 1970 law.

Jean-Pierre Galland, president of the cannabis advocacy group, le Collectif d'Information et de Recherche Cannabique, said marijuana policy in France was "hysterical and incoherent." His group sent a marijuana cigarette to each of the 577 members of the National Assembly three days before the drug abuse conference. Galland predicts a compromise within the next few years. "I don't see any other way, as the current law is unworkable, he said.

Jean Pierre Galland - 73/75 rue de la plaine, 75020 Paris, FRANCE, Tel: (011) (33) 01-43-74-12-50, Fax: (011) (33) 01-43-74-13-45, Web: