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'First ever' bill proposes legal cannabis in France

Joshua Melvin · 30 Jan 2014, 17:21

Published: 30 Jan 2014 15:50 GMT+01:00
Updated: 30 Jan 2014 17:21 GMT+01:00

People smoking a joint in France face a maximum penalty of a year behind bars and a €3,750 fine for the first offence, yet 13.4 million French people admit to sparking up at least once in their life. Even France’s top cop, Interior Minister Manuel Vallls, said in a recent interview, he’d tried it “maybe once.”

The numbers go up as you look at the younger portion of the population. France had the unhappy distinction of being the European “champion” of teen pot smokers in 2011 when 24 percent of its 16-year-old kids admitted to smoking at least once a month, daily Le Monde reported.

Not surprisingly legalizing cannabis has come up regularly in France, but the discussion never has never gotten far. In fact, it was only this month that authorities announced medical cannabis spray Sativex had been authorized for sale in France, though only by prescription and solely to multiple sclerosis patients.

It stands in marked contrast to France's more liberal neighbour to the north, the Netherlands, which decriminalized personal use of pot nearly 40 years ago. American states Colorado and Washington went a step further when their voters fully legalized personal possession and use of marijuana in 2013.

Is it France’s turn next? French Senator Esther Benbassa, a green party member who represents an area on the south east border of Paris, believes it’s time to change. She also claims the legalization law she proposed on Tuesday is the first of its kind in France.

Her law would allow government-run retail stores to sell marijuana to adults for recreational use, though the full details won’t be available until the law is unveiled to the press on February 6th. Benbassa told The Local why she is pushing for legalization.

“It’s a subject that remains taboo in France. We have the impression that if we legalize cannabis, all the children, everyone, is going to start taking it. We are among the countries with the most restrictive laws in Europe, but at the same time the number of cannabis smokers continues to increase. There is really a paradox.

“The fact that we proposed the law now is related to what’s happening in the United States, but we were working on it before. If the law has changed in Washington and Colorado,  we felt we had to open the debate now. Prohibition is useless.

“And American President Barack Obama’s statement that marijuana is not any more dangerous than alcohol, that also made us realize it’s time.

“It makes more sense to legalize cannabis in order to better control it. For example, the growing and distribution of cannabis, but why not also check the quality? Why not do more drug abuse prevention? Why not shelter children from drug dealers that sell in front of schools?

“It would help in the fight against the mafia and drug dealers. Why not invest the money that the government would make from legalizing and taxing cannabis into drug abuse prevention?

“We believe that today it is an established fact that people smoke cannabis. So let’s be responsible.

“Compared to the Netherlands, we very far behind. In France we are very repressive when it comes to drugs, but with other things as well. Our politicians make rules based on the question of security.

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“I was on a radio show and was asked by professor of medicine if I was going to distribute hash in schools. There are people out there who will try to misguide people and say 'these leftists are trying to destroy France.' They say we want all the kids to smoke cannabis and make society more indulgent. It's not true.

"The United States is conservative as well, but it’s pragmatic. But in France we are conservative without willing to be practical."

As for whether she has ever smoked marijauana, Benbassa asserted the eroding French tradition of keeping quiet about the private lives of public figures.

"That's a private matter and I'm not going to talk about it." 

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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