France follows a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ dynamic regarding cannabis but is running a full marathon when it comes to alcohol. Let me explain.
French law treats alcohol leniently compared to how it treats cannabis. Since 1970, the law considers cannabis as equal to all other narcotics. Users are liable to a 3750€ fine and up to a year in jail. However, these sanctions were considered too harsh and were never fully enforced by the police. In reaction, an amendment in 2020 placed a 200€ fine on all use or possession of cannabis. If arrested driving under the influence of cannabis you are liable to a 4500€ fine and up to two years in jail. By contrast, it is legal to buy Alcohol starting from the age of 18 and legal to drive when you have drunk the equivalent of one glass of wine. If you have drunk two you face a 135€ fine, for three a 450€ fine and above that, 4500€ and up to two years in jail. The highest level of drunk driving is equivalent to the only level for cannabis, which implies that the law considers alcohol a lesser drug than cannabis.
The existing evidence disagrees with the law on the potential dangers of cannabis. The ‘Observatoire Français des Drogues et des Toxicomanie’, a public association linked with the French Health Ministry, published studies on the dangers of cannabis which fail to explain the current policies. Indeed, alcohol multiplies by 8.5 your chances of having a car accident and is present in a third of all mortal car accidents. Whereas cannabis multiplies your chances by 2. As a reference, using your phone while driving multiplies the risk by 3. Furthermore, when smoking cannabis you will feel an effect for about two hours but the drug test can come back positive for around three days after. This means that you can get arrested for being under the influence when in fact you are not.
One questionable argument to support the lenient treatment of alcohol is profit. Taxes on alcohol earn the French government 3 billion euros per year. However, the social costs associated with drinking exceed these gains by far. Indeed, it is estimated that state expenditures and losses due to alcohol (deaths, loss of productivity, illnesses etc.) reached 120 billion euros in 2015 whereas all narcotics combined cost 9 billion euros (cannabis, heroin, cocaine etc.). To give an example, taxes on alcohol can only cover 42% of treatment costs linked with drinking. Moreover, in 2015 the state spent 283 million euros on prevention and repression of alcohol consumption as compared to 913 million euros to curb drug use. This means that alcohol creates more health problems, kills more people on the road, and costs more in general. But the state spends less to prevent its (ab-)use than on all other drugs. There is issue bias as the ongoing criticism of cannabis creates a loud debate, which enables the government to avoid addressing the alcohol problem.
Cannabis use has risks but legalisation might help regulation. Risks are most prevalent for teenagers who consume regularly as it can affect brain development and create addictions. However, keeping this drug illegal prevents the French government from regulating access and allows illegal trafficking to flourish. Despite strict laws, France is the biggest cannabis consumer in Europe, implying that you can buy this drug easily. Thus, legalising it would probably not facilitate access, especially for young groups. Furthermore, as evidence strongly suggests, cannabis is less of a health and societal hazard than alcohol. In consequence, it would make sense to at least re-evaluate how cannabis is considered within the law, separating it from other narcotics, for example.
There is hope for change. In 2020, a trial for therapeutic cannabis was accepted and a parliamentary commission is attempting to start discussions about recreational use. On the other hand, when it comes to alcohol, the government is not yet ready to push for changes. For instance, in 2020, president Macron refused to support ‘Dry January’, stating during a visit to Champagne makers that a French dry January would not happen.
To conclude, this policy area is a great example of cognitive dissonance aversion, meaning that politicians can look at the evidence that supports their beliefs and discard the rest. Indeed, the French government is displaying evidence of technical bias when it comes to decisions surrounding cannabis. Their love for a good glass of wine blinds them from the dangers of their beloved beverage. Their overarching determination to keep the image of a drug prohibiting country prevents them from looking at the evidence being delivered by their own Health Ministry and make coherent decisions. Policy-making cannot simply be a scientific process but it also cannot only rely on politics and values.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.