Could Proposed Legislative Reform End France’s Violent War On Drugs?

A recently commissioned parliamentary report has suggested decriminalizing all drug use to ease France’s congested criminal justice system. Comprised of two assembly members of the governing centrist and centre-right parties, the report’s authorship recommended either fining (rather than prosecuting) individuals found in possession of drugs or downgrading use and possession to a non-criminal offence. Reform of France’s drug policy has been long awaited, as France exhibits one of the greatest levels of drug use in the EU and the highest rate of teenage drug-use, such that 310,000 French citizens are arrested for drug offences each year. If incorporated within reformed legislation, the report’s recommendations would hopefully serve as a panacea to France’s harsh and historic war on drugs.

Speaking favourably of the proposed legislation, French MP Robin Reda stated that the report’s conclusions would permit the criminal justice system to appropriate its resources to focusing on trafficking. Reda stated, “we have to mobilize our police, our law enforcement, and justice in the search for all distribution channels: from the small street dealer to the head of the network”. However, Benjamin Jeanroy, head of drug policy at French reform group ECHO, voiced concern that the changes did not go far enough to remedy the discriminate hostility of police toward marginalized demographics. Jeanroy said to TalkingDrugs, “the same people will continue to be arrested and harassed because of drug consumption and possession – particularly youth from impoverished neighbourhoods”.

Indeed, France’s crackdown on drugs has been known to target youth of Arab and Muslim backgrounds whilst affording selective impunity to white teenagers.

Commentator Johann Hari has linked large-scale disenfranchisement with the criminal justice system to first and second-generation migrants responding with political violence. Hari states, “the pool of violence caused by drug prohibition overlaps so tightly with the pool of violence caused by jihadism”. In French suburbs where prohibited drug trafficking is most concentrated, violence has become all but normalized. Olivier Foll, former head of the French drug squad believes that there are 843 of these ‘no-go zones’, which have forged “a state inside the state”. In one such suburb, Sevran, Mayor Stéphane Gatignon requested that the UN mobilize blue helmet peacekeepers to ameliorate the violence emanating from the drug trade.

Conversely, the inverse association between decriminalization of drug use and violence has been demonstrated in several European countries, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Portugal. For example, in Portugal, a 15 year-old born after the decriminalization of drug use in 2001 is half as likely to have used cannabis as their contemporaries in France. Other positive externalities following Portugal’s decriminalization act include a substantial reduction in overdoses, HIV infections and drug-related crimes. Since 1970, France has attempted to curb drug use through extensive media campaigns, youth education and drop-in treatment centres. As these efforts have been demonstrably unsuccessful, it seems that suspending the prohibitionist model would be more effective.

As France has historically ennobled the State as the ultimate shaper of social order, these proposed reforms have great potential to change the French drug supply culture from the top-down. Since 2015, the French parliament has localized its security concerns around the influx of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. However, addressing the aggregate number of arms associated with the illegal drugs supply stands to do far more for securing long-term stability than closing off migration channels to refugees. The Macron government has set the submitted recommendations for review in Spring 2018.