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Cannabis: French high court ruling puts CBD products back on sale

France’s highest administrative court has temporarily overturned a ban on the sale of cannabidiol (CBD) flowers and leaves in France, less than a month after it was introduced by the government. This is just the latest stage in France’s convoluted history with cannabis.

A worker prepares CBD dried flower buds at a CBD cannabis production company.
A worker prepares CBD dried flower buds at a CBD cannabis production company. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

A ministerial order had banned the sale of hemp flower and leaf loaded with CBD, from December 31st 2021 – but the Conseil d’Etat has provisionally overruled that decision, pending further examination of the order. 

CBD is derived from cannabis but contains none of the psychoactive compounds, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), found in cannabis that would make users “high”.

In its ruling, the court noted that the flowers and leaves of certain varieties of cannabis were “devoid of narcotic properties” and could therefore be marketed in France.

In a statement, the court said: “The interim judge … considers there is a serious doubt as to the legality of this general and absolute ban because of its disproportionate nature”.

But what does its decision actually mean?

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

Hemp flowers and leaves back on the market

A handful of sub-varieties of cannabis Sativa L, including so-called “industrial” hemp, are authorised for “cultivation, import, export and industrial and commercial use” in France, as specified in the ministerial decree of 30 December 2021, which nonetheless prohibited the sale of hemp in the form of raw leaves and flowers. 

These varieties contain a very low level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), another active ingredient in cannabis, which has psychotropic effects. As long as the plant has a THC content of less than 0.3 percent, its leaves and flowers can be sold commercially. 

However, the rules for cultivation, sale and consumption remain unchanged. Only registered hemp growers are allowed to grow these strictly controlled plants and may only cultivate the varieties listed in the official French catalogue. 

The sale of hemp flowers and leaves is forbidden to under 18s, as a precaution as health authorities still admit to knowing little about CBD.

CBD-based products are also authorised, under certain conditions

Numerous CBD-based products such as resins, creams, oils, sweets or cereal bars were unaffected by the ministerial ban, which primarily targeted CBD for smoking – but tisaines and herbal teas were temporarily banned, as they could contain raw flowers or leaves.

Following the Conseil’s decision, the only requirement is that the finished CBD product must have a THC content of 0. As with leaves and flowers, the sale of these products is prohibited to minors. Most shops also advise against selling CBD to pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Importantly, producers and sellers cannot claim any therapeutic benefits of CBD, as the medical use of cannabis is only just being examined by France’s medicines authority, the Agence nationale de la sécurité du médicament (ANSM). 

READ ALSO Why CBD cannabis ‘health shops’ are blossoming all over France

High levels of THC remains illegal

The rest of the leaves, flowers, resins and products derived from cannabis with a THC content of more than 0.3 percent are considered as narcotics and their use, possession, sale or trafficking. 

Consumption is a criminal offence punishable by one year’s imprisonment and fines of up to €3,750. Growers and sellers risk up to 10 years in prison. 

By way of comparison with products sold legally, cannabis sold on the black market has an average THC content of 11 percent for weed and 26.5 percent for resin, according to the latest figures from the Observatoire français des drogues et des tendances addictives (OFDT).

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

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