Hollande will not go Dutch on cannabis

No major changes expected on drug policy in France
Thursday, May 17, 2012

defense-fumerThe new president of France, François Hollande, is not likely to change cannabis policies. His choice as Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, is a declared opponent to any reform on cannabis. During the election campaign, Hollande already opposed the proposal to convert the criminal offence of cannabis use into misdemeanour, put forward by his security adviser and mayor of Dijon, François Rebsamen. Hollande did not want to “give any signal foregoing a deterrent against the use of cannabis."

Valls is diametrically opposed to the proposals of “controlled legalisation” by a working group of the Socialist Party, headed by the former minister of the Interior Daniel Vaillant. In their report, Légalisation contrôlée du cannabis, published in June 2011, the working group proposed that the cultivation and consumption of cannabis in France should become a state-controlled activity to end the dealing and crime that has poisoned life in France's banlieues, and to guarantee the quality of a substance that is widely consumed but is often of very poor quality.

Total disagreement

Valls declared that he is in "total disagreement" with "any concessions in this area on behalf of the values of left and my ideas on the Republican order and freedom of everyone". To make his point, he refers to the outdated stepping stone theory that has been discarded by most serious scientists. "Do we know what we're talking about? The devastating effects of drugs on young kids, from college (...) It often starts – not automatically – with this type of consumption, this underground economy that undermines our neighbourhoods."

The most outspoken pro-cannabis decriminalization candidate in the Socialist primaries, Martine Aubry, lost against Hollande in the second round two-way runoff. She was tipped as the new Prime Minister, but is not even in the new government. Hollande’s choice as Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault – the former leader of the Partí Socialiste (PS) in the National Assembly – is not known as someone with a reform agenda when cannabis is concerned.

In his reaction to the controlled legalisation report Ayrault said that if the left would return to power, a "committee to try to find solutions" should be convened. To his credit Ayrault recognized the "failure" of current drug control policies and complimented Vaillant with posing the right questions. He added that the problem should be approached as "a public health issue and that of a parallel economy."

Inconvenient truths

The other possible candidate for the position of Minister of the Interior, François Rebsamen, probably lost any prospects when in the midst of the presidential election campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy, he proposed to convert the criminal offence of cannabis use into misdemeanour: "There are 142,000 cannabis procedures per year, corresponding to hundreds of thousands of hours of work for the police producing only 24,000 prosecutions", Rebsamen defended his proposal.

Rebsamen repeated his proposal recently, adding that he was merely replicating a bill proposed by a senator of the UMP [Sarkozy’s party] already approved by the Senate. The inconvenient truths of Rebsamen might have cost him the position of Minister of the Interior, according to some observers, despite the fact that a similar proposal had been made by his opponent Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

Valls claims his expertise on security and drugs on his experiences as mayor of Évry, in the banlieu of Paris, one of the most insecure areas of France, where drug dealing is rife. However, such experiences need not necessarily lead to a prohibitionist view as is demonstrated by Stéphane Gatignon, mayor of Sevran – also in the banlieu and equally rife with drug dealers – , who is in favour of legalizing cannabis and controlling its production and distribution with the aim to decrease risk and “finish with the dealers”. He believes in legalizing cannabis and the institution of a system that will yield financial benefits.

One billion in revenue

France is one of Europe’s biggest cannabis consumers and has some of the toughest anti-drug laws. The country has 1.2 million regular cannabis users (smoking more than 10 times a month) and 3.9 million occasional users (at least once a year), according to the Observatoire français des drogues et des toxicomanies (OFDT). That figure has quadrupled since 1990.

Pierre Kopp, an economist of Paris University, has compared the cost of combating cannabis abuse with its possible cost if legalised. “The state could save about €300 million on spending arising out of arrests,” Kopp argues. “Or perhaps even more if you include the cost of custody, the running of courts and the enforcement of sentences. The state would also receive duty worth about €1 billion. And then manpower and resources could be redeployed in prevention and combating trafficking of other drugs.”

Maybe those figures could convince Hollande to change course in the midst of pressure to balance the budget in the current economic crisis, but otherwise prospects on mayor changes in drug policy in France are slim. A step forward might be that Hollande supports the testing of "consumption rooms" for heroin users, blocked by Sarkozy’s Prime Minister Fillon.