Marseille. Photo via
In the unemployment-ravaged suburbs of northern Marseille, drug dealers regularly get shot for obscure “territorial” reasons; Eight young dealers have died in score-settling related incidents since the beginning of the year, while a suspected drug trafficker was brutally killed by Kalashnikov fire in a drive-by shooting in April 2014.
Mohamed Bensaada, a member of the CQPM – an association working for disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Marsaille – is promoting a radical solution to put an end to this violence. He wants to legalise cannabis and turn the dealers into local growers or coffee shop waiters. I met up with Mohamed to ask him more about his plans.
VICE: Do you really believe that legalisation would change things for the better in Marseille's sensitive neighbourhoods?
Mohamed Bensaada: I do. But that's just my opinion – I haven't convinced everyone yet. In France, cannabis legalisation has been a touchy subject for a long time, because the debate has never made it past moral panic. I try to be pragmatic: Cannabis is prohibited, but there are people dealing with their addiction that can't be helped for as long as we refuse to raise the debate. Prohibition isn't an efficient way to prevent drug-related violence – in fact, it fosters it, as it causes a black market to develop.
If legalisation works for Uruguay, it might as well work for Marseille.
Yeah, that's my point. I try to show that other countries have done it before. There's Uruguay, of course, but there are also places in Europe and America where cannabis has been legalised. In these places, a correlation has been established between the legalisation and a dwindling of violence. It breaks the black market and replaces it with a state-controlled market, putting an end to the savage competition between smugglers. There are no rules on the drugs market, so you need to make some if you want to bring back order.
Mohamed Bensaada during a meeting in Marseille in 2012.
If we legalised cannabis right now, what would happen to drug dealers? To local growers? To coffee shop managers?
I know it shocks people, but for legalisation to work we need to make contact with the dealers, talk to those who don't have blood on their hands, pardon them and ask them to hire. It sounds funny but it's a "social legalisation" – integrating a parallel economy with the regulated economy. People often say jokingly that drug dealers are the main hirers in the neighbourhoods where they operate.
We can't let people in their twenties keep risking their lives working illegally in the drugs trade. A society that tolerates such a situation is unable to understand that the drug issue is a societal issue and that blind repression isn't the most appropriate answer in sensitive neighbourhoods, like those in the North of Marseille.
Aren't you scared of being accused of encouraging people to use cannabis?
Legalisation isn't an end in itself. Of course, it needs to come with public health campaigns and with structures providing care, advice and education for people. I'm aware of what cannabis can do, I'm not making an apology; it's just that we, as a society, have hit a point when action has to be taken. Closing our eyes on the drug-related, violent crimes in our neighbourhoods will never be a proper answer. Sending the police again and again will not solve the problem.
Sativa plants. Photo via
Some have argued that legalisation would not put an end to drug trafficking, because the dealers would start smuggling other drugs after cannabis is legalised. What do you think?
This argument is invalid to me. There is no place where cannabis legalisation has caused a rise in cocaine or heroin trade. People who actually worked with cannabis users know that smoking weed does not lead to injecting heroin. This seems to be a widespread thought, but it is based on absolutely no scientific grounds.
What do the young people in Marseille's poor neighbourhoods think about the solution you promote?
Those who are related to the dealers think it's funny. They're not shocked though – it's people my age who are shocked, for moral reasons. They fear that legalisation would incite their children to start smoking. But here's a fact: alcohol is legal, and that doesn't mean that we're all alcoholics. People seem to have trouble being rational when talking about cannabis – they say, “Hash is bad, it starts with hash and ends with severe drug addiction.” But if you try to be rational, you realise that's not true, and that it only takes a regulated structure to work.
Why do you think Marseille has reached such a critical situation?
Politicians don't really care as long as the trafficking stays in specific, disadvantaged areas. It concerns me, because it says something about how people living in these areas are perceived. I think that in a way, they were just forsaken by the State. No politician would dare to say: “Legalisation is the solution,” because it would be a political suicide. There is a general hypocrisy and an institutional segregation. There is a population of cannabis users, but nothing is done about it. The fact is: if we keep on doing nothing, more kids will die.
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