Harsh laws and high usage: France looks to reform its drug policies

Fred Dufour, AFP | People pass a joint during a CIRC (research and information center) demonstration to call for the legalization of marijuana and hashish on June 18, 2011, at the Parc de la Villette in Paris.

President Emmanuel Macron has taken steps to reform drug laws amid concerns that France has seen a continuous rise in drug use despite having some of the strictest narcotics laws in Europe. But is the country ready for a radical new approach?


A parliamentary report released in January noted that – since the law criminalising drugs was passed on December 31, 1970 – the number of drug arrests in France has steadily increased, to nearly 140,000 in 2016 (or 67.5% of all arrests).

French law calls for a €3,750 fine and/or up to a year in prison for the use or possession of narcotics and makes no distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs.

In 2015 alone, there were 37,160 convictions for the use of narcotics versus just 3,481 in 2000a 10.6-fold increase in 15 years.

The report acknowledged that France’s current drug policies are “inefficient” as well as “very time-consuming for police and magistrates”. The ministry of interior estimated the number of police work hours devoted to such offenses in 2016 at more than 1 million – the equivalent of 600 people working full time, it said.

And yet the consumption of illicit drugs in France is on the rise. According to a 2017 report by the French Observatory for Drugs and Addiction (France's main source for data on public drug use), 700,000 people say they use cannabis daily while 1.4 million people admit to using it “regularly” – in all, 17 million people admit to having tried the drug.

According to the most recent survey by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug addiction (EMCDDA), the number of 15- and 16-year-olds who say they use cannabis is higher in France than in any other European country. A 2016 World Health Organization report similarly found that French teens top the rankings in marijuana use.

And the shortcomings of the French approach are not lost on the public. An Ipsos poll from 2016 found that 84 percent of the population thinks that France’s current drug legislation is "ineffective" while just over half – 52 percent – would support the government-regulated sale of cannabis.

The Macron government announced in January that it would begin handing out on-the-spot fines of between €150 and €200 for cannabis possession but has ruled out actual decriminalisation, which remains politically controversial in France. As a presidential candidate, Macron himself backtracked on proposals to decriminalise the use of soft drugs like marijuana.

In announcing the new policy on fines, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb was clear that pursuing further legal action against drug offenders would remain an option. “Therefore, there is no decriminalisation of cannabis use," he said. 

The parliamentary report called the introduction of a flat-rate fine “a necessary evolution” that would help homogenise France’s drug laws – which see great variety in how they are enforced across the country – and lessen the administrative burden on the courts and police. “This flat rate will minimise [legal] procedures that are too time-consuming for law enforcement and justice, and prioritise the fight against trafficking,” the lawmakers said.

French Finance Minister Bruno LeMaire told France radio in January that while he does not support the legalisation of cannabis, French drug laws were overdue for a reckoning.

“'[W]e must take a good hard look at where we have gone wrong … we have the harshest laws in Europe, yet the highest consumption rates.”

France: drug use at a glance
Eurostat 2017

Portugal: Prioritising treatment

While no EU country has gone as far as legalising marijuana, several members – including Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and the Czech Republic – have introduced laws that tolerate the possession (and in some cases, the sale) of small amounts. Several European countries have also found some success with shifting the focus of their drug policies from penalisation to treatment.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, drugs became a hot topic of debate in Portugal. Drug use in Lisbon and other major cities was visible and out in the open. A 1997 EuroBarometer poll found that the Portuguese viewed drug-related issues as the country’s most pertinent social problem. Despite low levels of drug abuse among the general population, it had one of the highest rates of “problematic” drug use, notably high rates of heroin use and HIV infection.

In 2001, Portugal became the first EU country to take steps toward decriminalising the possession and use of drugs in favour of a new approach that emphasised offering treatment to offenders. In effect, this marked a shift away from viewing Portugal’s drug users as criminals to seeing them as people struggling with a treatable medical condition. Under the new rules, those caught with a supply intended only for personal use receive a warning or a modest fine, and are ordered to appear at a local Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (including a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker), where he or she will receive information about treatment and the government support services available.

The cultivation and sale of cannabis and other drugs, however, remains illegal.

In the decade that followed, the country saw significant declines in overdose deaths, drug-related crime, and rates of hepatitis and HIV infection. The use of illicit substances among the adult population overall has also fallen while the use of cannabis and other drugs among Portuguese students is slightly below the European average, according to the EMCDDA, which monitors drug risk and trends across the EU.

Portugal’s government provides public services free of charge to anyone who seeks treatment for drug dependence, ranging from social and psychological help to opioid substitution treatment. 

Portugal’s novel approach has been widely celebrated for having seemingly turned around its drug problem within a decade.

Portugal: drug use at a glance
Eurostat 2017

The Netherlands: Tolerance, within limits

The Netherlands Opium Act of 1928, which remains the basis for current drug legislation in the Netherlands, criminalises drug trafficking as well as the cultivation, production, sale and possession of drugs, punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Private drug use, however, is not classified as a crime. The Act and its amendments also make a distinction between “List I” drugs (heroin, cocaine, MDMA/ecstasy and amphetamines) and “List II” drugs (cannabis and hallucinogenic mushrooms).

A later Opium Act directive governs the sale and consumption of cannabis at the Netherlands’ famous “coffee shops”, which were established to ensure cannabis users were not exposed to harder, more dangerous drugs. Such dispensaries are strictly regulated, however. 

Possession of less than 0.5 grams of a List I drug (or up to 5 grams of cannabis) is not usually prosecuted, although the drugs will be confiscated and the offender referred to a treatment centre. In 2015, 20,503 infractions of the Opium Act were registered by the public prosecutor, a decrease from the year before.

However, legal guidelines classify such prosecutions as low priority. Criminal investigations and prosecutions in the Netherlands generally adhere to the “expediency principle” (opportuniteitsbeginsel), which means the Dutch Public Prosecution Service can choose to forego prosecution in the broader interest of society.

Drug users involved in minor offences in the Netherlands are increasingly encouraged to enter treatment programmes. The Dutch government has made clear that its priority is treatment and prevention.

“The purpose of Dutch drug policy is to prevent drug use and to limit harm to drug users,” the government says on its website. “In addition, the government takes action to limit the nuisance caused to society at large. A great deal of information is disseminated about drugs and proper attention is paid to supervising drug users.”

The options for drug treatment in the Netherlands are diverse. Opioid substitution treatment, in tandem with psychosocial therapy – including relapse prevention, cognitive-behavioural therapy, and family and community therapies – is the preferred treatment for opioid dependence.

Although the reported lifetime use of cannabis among young people (15-16 years of age) in the Netherlands was seen to be higher than the European average in a 2015 study, other data indicate a decline in the number of opioid users among the general population over the past decade.

HIV rates among intravenous drug users have also remained low in the Netherlands (along with rates of Hepatitis B and C, both common in IV drug users).

Netherlands: drug use at a glance
Eurostat 2017

No silver bullet

Despite indications of an inverse relationship between drug abuse and a country’s focus on treatment programmes, some analysts warn against taking correlation as evidence of causation to draw hasty conclusions.

“It is always very difficult to prove that introduction of a broad policy has changed a population's behaviour,” said Brendan Hughes, a legal analyst with the EMCDDA, in an email.

“But I can say that there has been a major reduction in problems linked to heroin consumption around Europe at the same time that countries have increased their number of opiate users [entering] into substitution treatment programmes.”

There has also been something of a shift toward the pragmatic in European attitudes toward imprisoning drug offenders. 

“Most countries in Europe do not believe that sending drug users to prison, if there is no other offence involved, is cost-effective; prison is extremely expensive and does not by itself assist a drug user to stop taking drugs.”

The Fédération Addiction, a French NGO that encourages drug policy reform, agrees.

“It is not by being arrested that one gets access to the most or best care,” the group said in a statement provided to FRANCE 24.

The Fédération Addiction encourages the adoption of interdisciplinary policies that focus less on punishment.

“Criminal punishments have increased in recent years, including a rise in arrests and punitive measures … despite the absence of a link between criminal punishments [and drug] usage levels and the most recent international recommendations, which suggest moving away from criminal prosecutions.”

The Fédération says that France needs to unite municipal, medical and social workers under an interdisciplinary intervention policy that encompasses treatment, education, prevention and risk reduction. 

France is walking something of a tightrope as it navigates its way toward a drug policy that finds the right balance between punishment and treatment while also being cost-effective. Some have suggested that legalisation could be part of the answer. 

Jean-Pierre Couteron, a clinical psychologist and president of the Fédération Addiction, says France must be willing to abandon the drug policies that have failed it in the past. Going a step further, he argues that the economic benefits of legalisation far outweigh the potential costs.

The production of cannabis could create tens of thousands of jobs across France, he argued in a joint contribution to Libération with economist Pierre-Yves Geoffard last June. Distribution could then be supervised, “which would make it possible to restrict access to minors more effectively than today, and to better identify problematic users to direct them to the appropriate health services”.

Moreover, marijuana could then be taxed, the way alcohol and tobacco are today. “Given current levels of demand, this could mean several billion euros that could feed into social security funds, instead of feeding criminal networks,” they wrote.

Other advocates of legalisation have made a similar argument. In a December 2014 study, the left-leaning Terra Nova think tank estimated the state’s potential tax revenue from legalising and regulating cannabis at €1.8 billion a year.

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