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The long and winding road towards changing France’s cannabis laws

A group of French MPs has called for cannabis to be legalised in a report - just the latest in a series of twists and turns from the nation that has some of the toughest laws but the largest number of cannabis users in Europe. James Harrington looks at France's complicated relationship with the drug.

The long and winding road towards changing France's cannabis laws
Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP

Meanwhile, the Cour de Cassation was due to clarify the legal situation on the sale of Cannabidiol (CBD), an oily, plant-based compound extracted from cannabis hemp that does not contain the active compound THC, on Wednesday, June 23rd.

The MPs’ report, following a year-long Parliamentary fact-finding mission, found that more than 80 percent of people were in favour of easing France’s drugs laws.

France has some of the toughest drug laws in Europe. There is no distinction between possession for use or possession for supply, and it remains outlawed for medicinal use – although a two-year medical trial involving some 3,000 patients is currently under way.

Officially, French law calls for a €3,750 fine and/or up to a year in prison for use or possession of narcotics. There is little distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs – though on-the-spot fines of between €150 and €200 for minor offences of cannabis possession have been enforced since January 2018.

Heavy use

Despite these efforts, cannabis consumption in France is the highest in Europe, with an estimated 5 million annual users and 900,000 daily smokers. In 2016, 41 percent of French people aged 15 to 64 said that they had used the drug at least once – compared to the European average of 18.9 percent.

A previous parliamentary report, published in January 2018, acknowledged that France’s drug policies were “inefficient” as well as “time-consuming for police and magistrates”. 

The interior ministry at the time estimated the number of police working hours devoted to such offences in 2016 at more than 1 million – the equivalent of 600 people working full time, it said.

It was at this time that the government announced police would begin handing out on-the-spot fines for cannabis possession. 

The latest study

This latest report – compiled over a year and featuring consultations with doctors, police officers, legal experts, academics and the public –  says that legalising the drug would ‘regain control’ from traffickers and protect young people. It points – again – to what it describes as the ‘failure’ of current hard-line policies.

“The state helplessly assists the trivialisation of cannabis among young people and the deterioration of security [despite] a French repressive policy which is costly and relies excessively on the police,” it said.

The budget allocated to the police, gendarmerie and customs for the fight against illegal drugs almost doubled between 2012 and 2018 and currently stands at €1.08 billion annually, the MPs noted. 

More than half of that amount – €568million – is spent fighting cannabis trafficking and use, said Caroline Janvier, an MP from the ruling LREM party who sits on the cross-party parliamentary committee on cannabis, ahead of the launch public consultation stage of the study earlier this year.

Its chairman, Robin Reda of the centre right Les Républicains party, said at the time: “Cannabis use is so widespread in society; we have to respond to that at a political level. 

“No one should be happy with our current policy when this repressive stance is clearly not working.”

Public support

In six weeks, 253,194 people took part in the mission’s online citizen consultation on recreational cannabis.

Le Monde reported that 80.8 percent of respondents agreed with allowing the consumption and production of cannabis in a framework governed by law; 13.8 percent said they supported decriminalising the drug completely; and 4.6 percent said they wanted stronger sanctions, while 0.8 percent said current rules should be maintained.

Official opposition

Despite the apparently overwhelming public support, it would be wrong to suggest that a rapid shift towards legalisation is inevitable. Opposition remains strong in key circles – notably in the police. 

Police union Alternative Police issued a statement on the day the report was released voicing its opposition to any plans to ease restrictions.

It said: “Alternative Police asserts that this decriminalisation scheme corresponds to the one followed by the Netherlands since 1976, which now faces an increase in drug-traffickers’ criminality linked to the tolerance of cannabis sales for more than 40 years, and that legalisation will only accentuate the criminogenic situation with a proven increase in consumption.”

The union highlighted the murder of Sarah Halimi – her alleged killer will not face trial, after the Cour de Cassation, ruled he had been undergoing a “psychotic episode” at the time of the attack because of excessive cannabis use and was therefore not fit to stand trial.

READ ALSO Affaire Sarah Halimi – why the murder of a Jewish woman in Paris could be tried in an Israeli court

Alternative Police’s statement said: “The murderer of Sarah Halimi was under the influence of cannabis. Tomorrow, by legalising cannabis, are parliamentarians ready to assume the principle of the excuse of irresponsibility as it was invoked during the trial of this tragic case?”.

Government stance

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, meanwhile, has been equally unequivocal in his opposition.

He previously described cannabis as a hard drug ‘like heroin or cocaine’, and has repeatedly voiced his support for police in their ‘war on drugs’.


In September 2020, he said: “As interior minister and a politician I cannot tell parents who are fighting for their children to give up their drug addiction that we are going to legalise this shit – and yes, I am saying shit.”

Strong words, for sure, but ones that toe a common long-standing and successive government line. In 2019, then-Health Minister Agnès Buzyn said: “I’m against legalising cannabis. I’m currently waging a fierce campaign against smoking, so I’m not going to decriminalise marijuana, which has the same effects as cigarettes.”

And President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out legalising the drug while he is in office. 

A slowly softening position?

Pro-legalisation MPs still hope this latest report will “have an effect on” the 2022 presidential election campaign.

Janvier said: “I hope it will change the kind of policies on cannabis that politicians feel they can endorse.”

That remains to be seen. There are advocates in government – Health Minister and former neurologist Olivier Véran has long been an advocate of the legalisation of cannabis for medical use. While a backbench MP, he put forward an amendment to allow France to trial the drug for medical purposes.

But they are few and far between, and this is one political opinion that is understandably hard to shift – though there have been hints…

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told BFM Politique in early 2018 that while he did not support the legalisation of cannabis, an overhaul of French drug laws was long overdue.

“’We must take a good hard look at where we have gone wrong … we have the harshest laws in Europe, yet the highest consumption rates.”

Medical use

As elsewhere, political thought and action operate at vastly different speeds in France. On the whole, the law remains the same – as mission chair Reda said:  “There’s a big gap between what MPs have been willing to do and what the government has been willing to do.”

In October 2020, the French government finally gave the go-ahead for two-year medical trials of cannabis. 

The new report recommended that French farmers should produce therapeutic cannabis for use in France – to avoid dependence on producers from other countries, to help maintain quality standards, and give producers additional income. 


You may have seen cannabidiol – or CBD – shops on French high streets, or online. 

Cannabidiol is an oily, plant-based compound extracted from cannabis hemp. It is one of over 113 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. 

Many advocate its use to ease chronic pain, inflammation, migraines, epilepsy, autoimmune diseases, depression, and anxiety.

CBD is not classed as a drug because it does not contain the active compound THC, which causes the ‘high’. France already produces some 40 percent of Europe’s hemp supply.

But the rules surrounding CBD in France are vague, at best. The European Court has ruled it can be sold in France – but it is illegal to grow hemp for the production of CBD here.

And shops selling CBD remain vulnerable to sudden administrative closures.

The future

Right now, the political will to legalise cannabis for recreational use does not exist. 

But advocates expect shifts towards the full legalisation of CBD and cannabis for medicinal use fairly rapidly, in political terms.

They admit that changing the law to make recreational cannabis legal is more complex, and will take much longer. But they are confident it will happen, as public opinion leans in its favour.

It’s just a matter of time until political will catches up with public will, they say.

Until then, their campaign will continue.

Member comments

  1. Judging by what they have just voted for in the “Climate Bill” I would think most of the Government are already smoking it.

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OPINION: There is no chance of a sensible debate on the French government’s immigration bill

Immigration - like pensions - is a subject which in France anaesthetises balance and common-sense, writes John Lichfield, which explains why the government's new immigration bill is becoming virtually the new definition of a mountain out of a molehill.

OPINION: There is no chance of a sensible debate on the French government's immigration bill

France has changed its migration law 29 times in the last 40 years. There has been no significant change since 2018. A spasm of tinkering is evidently overdue.

The government thinks so – or at least some of the time. It proposed a new migration law last year. Since then, the draft law has frequently been delayed.

It was sawn in half and then sown back together again. There have been seven changes of direction in nine months.

Language tests and easier expulsion: The latest on France’s new immigration law

President Emmanuel Macron, against the wishes of his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, has now decided to push forward rapidly with the new legislation. He wants to prove that, despite the national nervous breakdown over pension reform, despite the loss of his parliamentary majority, his government can still advance its domestic agenda.

Hear John and the team at The Local discussing the immigration bill, and its political fallout, in the latest episode of Talking France. Listen here or on the link below

Is there an urgent need for change? Yes and no. Mostly no.

Despite the nonsense spouted by the Far Right and the Right, France is not being “swamped” by migrants. Net migration is under 200,000 people a year. That figures has increased only slightly over the last decade.

Just over one in ten French residents were born in other countries – 30 percent of them within the European Union – compared to one in 20 in 1947. When asked which problems concern them the most, French people put migration 12th on their list – long after inflation, security, education, housing and health.

On the other hand, France does have a problem enforcing its migration rules.

A Paris schoolgirl was murdered last October by a woman who had been ordered to leave the country but was never removed. Most of the 234 African and middle eastern boat people delivered to Toulon in November by the Ocean Viking humanitarian vessel vanished before they could be processed by the French system.

Few of the illegal migrants or failed asylum seekers expelled from France actually leave the country. The government has little way of knowing whether the 120,000 people each year who are served with expulsion orders or OQTF’s (obligations de quitter le territoire français) have left or not.

READ ALSO OQTF: What is the notice to quit and can you appeal?

The proposed new migration law tries to address this issue. It would reduce from 12 to four the number of legal arguments that can be put forward to delay or cancel an expulsion order.

Everyone served with an OQRF would be inscribed on a computer file. It would create a new network of regional centres to process asylum requests.

The original bill was framed to appeal to both Right and Left – which made it sensibly balanced or wishy-washy Macronist, depending on your political persuasion. It would allow some illegal migrants and unprocessed asylum-seekers to contribute to the French economy by taking jobs.

Those eligible would include illegal migrants and asylum seekers who have been present in France for three years. They would be permitted to seek work permits in trades where labour is scarce – especially the restaurant and construction industries.

Originally, Macron and his interior minister Gérald Darmanin hoped that the bill would attract support from both the moderate left and the centre-right. The ill-feeling generated by the pension dispute now means that no left-wing support is conceivable.

All therefore depends on the 62 centre-right Les Républicains deputies who hold the balance of power in the National Assembly. They split on pension reform. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne warned Macron last month that they were equally divided and unreliable on the migration bill.

The President agreed to delay the debate until the autumn and then changed his mind. He needed – or wanted – an early parliamentary success on a contentious issue to prove that he was still able to govern, and reform, the country.

That was a mistake.

The leaders of Les Républicains (LR) have rejected the Macron migration bill. They have ruled out all possibility of voting to give some illegal migrants work-permits.

They have announced – but not yet published – an immigration bill of their own which steals the ideas of, inter alia, Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour, Donald Trump and the British Conservative government.

Amongst other things, they want to abolish the 25-years-old rights rights of illegal migrants to seek free health care in France (which takes just 0.5 percent of health spending). And they want to stop the “deep state” (ie French and European officials and judges) from protecting migrant rights.

The once pro-European centre-right party says that it wants a referendum on constitutional change to allow France to “take back control” and disobey EU laws when its national interests are threatened. This is a photocopy of Marine Le Pen’s idea which amounts to an unworkable Frexit-in-all-but-name.

None of this has a remote chance of being agreed while Macron is President. It is a) declaration that the failing LR intends to lurch to the hard right before the next presidential election b) a suicide note by what remains of the once broad Gaullist movement.

After nailing their colours to this illiberal mast, there is no chance that Les Républicains will provide the 40 or so votes needed for the Macron migration bill to pass in its present form. Darmanin, the interior minister, is looking for some form of compromise but cannot go too far without alienating parts of Macron’s own centrist alliance.

The sensible idea of jobs-for-deserving-migrants may be split from the bill (again) and carried out regionally by administrative order. The government may offer some small restrictions on health care for illegal migrants and asylum seekers.

Will that bring the LR aboard? I doubt it.

Will the government risk another explosion by using its special powers to impose the law under Article 49.3 of the Constitution? I doubt it.

Will Macron back down and withdraw the bill (again)? I doubt it.

Will immigration replace pensions as the dominant political psycho-drama? I doubt it.

There may have been case for more tinkering with migration law but this was not the time to insist on it. Macron should have concentrated his efforts on more consensual reforms like his seven-year increase in defence spending and the proposed “green” industry law.

Immigration, like pensions, is a subject which anaesthetises balance and practical common-sense.