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French Government Dismisses Official's Call for Pot Decriminalization Debate

The remarks come just a week before the UN General Assembly is due to hold a special session on global drug policy, where international leaders are expected to discuss decriminalization.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Apr 12 2016, 5:10pm

Photo by David Monniaux

A French minister provoked the ire of his government this week after voicing support for moderate decriminalization of marijuana use among adults.

"The prohibition of cannabis in France deserves to be discussed," Jean-Marie Le Guen, France's secretary of state for relations with the parliament, told the news outlet BFMTV on Monday. "Prohibition does not lead to a reduction in consumption. Our country is one of those whose youth consumes the most."

A doctor by training who said he was not speaking on behalf of the state, Le Guen advocated for a "selective" decriminalization for those aged 21 and over, and only for private consumption. He also urged the government to engage with young people to deter them from using weed.

"I am a public health advocate," he said. "I have always fought against the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and I will always fight against the consumption of cannabis among young people."

Related: Here's How Zero-Tolerance Drug Policies Have Damaged Public Health Worldwide

According to the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT), there are currently 4.6 million occasional pot users in France — 700,000 of which smoke weed on a daily basis. Cannabis is the country's drug of choice, and is particularly alluring to young people. Possession of cannabis can carry a sentence of up to one year and a 3,800-euro fine. Trafficking or production can be punished by a 10 to 20-year jail term.

Le Guen alluded to the political and economic drawbacks of France's current drug policy.

"We have to stop trafficking. Today, billions of euros are being introduced into our banlieues [poor suburbs], where they are fostering a culture of lawlessness, refusal to work," he said. He cautioned against the "gangsterization" of French society that is fueled by current laws.

Though he stressed that his views were his own, Le Guen quickly came under fire for his position following his comments, which sparked a flurry of reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.

Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé of the French Republican Party took to Twitter on Tuesday to criticize Le Guen.

"Decriminalizing cannabis: a move to please some young people while dividing the French. I am decidedly against sending signs that we are slackening [the drug laws].

Government spokesperson Stéphane Le Foll told the Le Parisien newspaper that the French government was "neither looking into, nor thinking of" changing the drug laws.

"None of this serves any purpose," he said. "There is already a policy in place."

Since François Hollande was elected president in 2012, several government officials have unsuccessfully tried to re-open the decriminalization debate. Housing Minister Cécile Duflot courted controversy in June 2012 shortly after her appointment when she urged officials to "consider that cannabis is like alcohol and tobacco." As in Le Guen's case today, the government immediately distanced itself from Duflot's position.

Related: Top US International Drug Official Signals Green Light for Countries to Decriminalize

In October 2012, then-Minister for Education Vincent Peillon noted that French drug policy was "somewhat lagging behind" that of its European neighbors and international allies, many of which have voted to partially or totally legalize weed over the past few years. The government repeated that there were no plans to revisit the country's drug laws, and Peillon had to release a statement stipulating that his views were his own, not the government's.

Le Guen's delivered his remarks just a week before the UN General Assembly is due to hold a special session on global drug policy, where international leaders are expected to take up matters such as harm reduction and potential decriminalization.

In February, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan published an piece in the German weekly Der Spiegel urging politicians to legalize drugs and focus their efforts on providing support to users.

"Globally, the 'war on drugs' has not succeeded," Annan wrote. "I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more."

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