France’s cannabis legalization debate misses one crucial point
Last summer in France, dozens of “CBD cafés” suddenly opened across the country.
Exploiting a legal loophole originally created for hemp farmers, these pop-up businesses sold queuing customers oils, drinks, and salves infused with cannabidiol, a cannabis compound that is a faddish if unproven “cure” for insomnia, anxiety, and more. The French government reacted quickly and by mid-June had officially prohibited the sale of CBD. The CBD cafés vanished within a month.
But France’s brief experiment with cannabidiol seems to have started a movement to legalize cannabis, which has been illegal since 1970.
On June 19, dozens of French economists, physicians, and politicians published an open letter in the popular news magazine L’Obs, denouncing the “bankruptcy” of cannabis prohibition and imploring the nation to “Légalisons-Le!” Soon after, an economic advisory council to the French prime minister released a report criticizing France’s drug war as a costly “French failure” and calling for cannabis legalization on financial grounds.
Then, in July, France’s drug safety agency approved the launch of medical cannabis trials in France—something physicians and activists have pushed for since 2013.
France’s drug policy debate largely echoes similar conversations that have lead a dozen US states to legalize and regulate cannabis since 2014, but for one difference: France has all but ignored the linkbetween race, cannabis, and mass incarceration.
France’s hidden war on drugs
Evidence suggests that cannabis prohibition over the past 50 years has disproportionately punished France’s Muslim minority.
About one-fifth of French prisoners were convicted for drug offenses, according to the French Ministry of Justice—a rate comparable to that of the United States. Nearly all of them are men.
There is no demographic breakdown of this population, because the French credo of “absolute equality” among citizens has made it illegal since 1978 to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, or religion. But sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, who studies France’s prison system, has found that roughly half of the 69,000 people incarcerated today in France are Muslims of Arab descent.
Muslims make up just 9% of France’s 67 million people.
According to a January 2018 study commissioned by the French National Assembly, of the 117,421 arrests for drugs in France in 2010, 86% involved cannabis. Cannabis arrests are rising quickly, too. The same study reported that number of people arrested annually for “simple use” of cannabis in France increased 10-fold between 2000 and 2015, from 14,501 to 139,683.
Taken together, this and other data suggests that up to 1 in 6 prisoners in France today may be an Arab Muslim man who used, possessed, or sold cannabis.
Colonial reefer madness
As I argue in my doctoral dissertation and forthcoming book on the history of hashish in France, the 19th-century French believed this mild drug caused insanity, violence ,and criminality among Muslim North Africans.
The link between hashish and violent Muslims, however, was ingrained in the national consciousness. And it influenced French public policy for decades.
Officials and physicians in French colonial Algeria, viewing hashish use as a cause of insanity and violent criminality, filled psychiatric hospitals across Algeria with local Muslims supposedly suffering “folie haschischique”—basically, “reefer madness.”
Such thinking also helped justify the creation of the Code de l’Indigènat in 1875, a French law that institutionalized racism and apartheid in French North Africa by officially designating Muslims as subjects rather than citizens.
In the name of promoting “colonial order,” France established separate and unequal legal codes that promoted the segregation, forced labor, and civil rights restrictions of Muslims and other Africans.
The stigmatizing association between Muslims, hashish, and criminality persisted after the end of the French Empire in 1968. It followed North Africans who emigrated to France, who were believed to be prone to violence and criminality and as such subject to government surveillance, interrogations, and excessive police force in France.
French parliamentarians seeking to criminalize cannabis in the late 1960s embraced these discriminatory views.
They described the nation’s growing drug problem as a “foreign plague” spread by Arab drug traffickers. One French National Assembly member even cited Sacy, reminding fellow lawmakers that cannabis had once inspired a cult of Muslim murderers called the “Hachichins.”
French lawmakers today probably would not use such discredited research or stigmatizing language to connect Muslims to cannabis. But the number of Muslims imprisoned for drug-related crimes suggests that this historic racism is alive and well in France.
If France moves to regulate legal cannabis, many doctors, pot smokers, and libertarian economists will surely rejoice. But it may be French Muslims who benefit the most.