From instituting new on-the-spot cannabis fines, to battling it out in court with the EU over the legality of CBD imports, France is quite busy right now, and the implications of its case could change cannabis laws throughout Europe.
Some countries make more sense in their slower acquiescence to accepting cannabis (and some have barely started the process at all). But many countries, particularly those of Western Europe, are gradually easing restrictions on cannabis use. This is not the case for France, which just instituted new fines for cannabis users, and is fighting the EU to restrict CBD imports that have any THC at all.
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Cannabis in France
In France, it’s illegal to both use and possess cannabis. Unlike most countries, France doesn’t differentiate between personal use and trafficking, meaning the amount of cannabis a person is found with, and the decision of the prosecutor, are what define the circumstance and punishment. It is up to the prosecutor in a particular case to determine whether the offender should go unpunished, if they should enter treatment, or if they will proceed in the court system. A person charged can receive a fine of up to €3,750 as well as a year long prison sentence. This is increased to €75,000 and five years in prison if the offender endangered others while using.
In 2008, the ‘rapid and graduated’ policy began which stated that in clear-cut cases, offenders could possibly get away with just a warning and a treatment program, as well as a possible fine of €450 if the person is not addicted to cannabis (however that is defined).
In 2018, yet another new policy was introduced by the government in which fines could be given on-the-spot to cannabis users. It started as a test in smaller communities, until becoming national policy last month.
As possession and use are illegal and there’s no formal medical program, growing cannabis – for any reason – is illegal, and subject to the same fines and prison time as other cannabis crimes, depending on how the prosecutor deems the case.
The industrial hemp loophole
Having said that, France is a country that falls into the industrial hemp loophole. France, in fact, is the only Western European country that didn’t outlaw growing hemp in the 20th century, though its general cultivation did decline last century with the advent of higher cotton production. This reversed again in the late 20th century, and between 1993-2015, half the hemp in Europe was coming out of France, making it the second biggest producer of industrial hemp globally after China. France abides by EU regulation which states the max amount of THC allowed in a plant is .2%.
Make no mistake that the industrial hemp grown in France is not intended, or approved, for consumption. Technically it’s just the seeds and fibers that are legal, and not the processing of the rest of the plant or the flowers. But as with any time you allow the production of something, it cannot always be completely regulated how it’s used. In this way, there is plentiful access to ingestible hemp in France, and plenty of purveyors looking for some gray area.
Selling and supplying are, as per the usual, considered much more severe, than personal use and possession crimes, however it should be remembered that it is often the prosecutor who defines what kind of case it is, and not the actual circumstances of the case. In any event, traffickers can face five years and a fine, or up to 10 years if there are extenuating circumstances. Members of criminal trafficking groups can face life in prison and up to €7.5 million in fines.
What about medical?
Essentially France has no medical program, but there are a couple laws in place that show some sort of progress. In 2013, a law was passed that allowed cannabis derivatives to be used for making medicines. The law technically decriminalized the “production, transport, export, possession, offering, acquisition or use of specialty pharmaceuticals that contains one of these (cannabis-derivative) substances”, though as of right now, the only offering legally is Sativex, and only to treat multiple sclerosis.
The possibly more interesting part of this law…which France doesn’t seem to think is relevant, is that it opens the door for France to enter the large and growing market for global medicinal cannabis. As the second biggest hemp supplier in the world, France is already poised to be one of the biggest players in the medical cannabis game, only it’s maddeningly just not what’s happening right now.
As far as looking to the future, last year saw the announcement and approval of a two year ‘experimental’ program to assess cannabis as a medicine. Its not actually to assess the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine, as this has technically been done. Rather, the experiment is designed to assess the real-world conditions necessary for a medicinal cannabis market (supply/demand, patient monitoring, regulatory aspects, etc.) As of early 2020 it had not gone into effect yet, and as of June 11th, it was delayed until January 2021 due to the coronavirus. The questions the government is looking to gain information on, are outlined here.
The CBD controversy
When it comes to CBD, it becomes more controversial. In France, as of June, 2018, it was decided that all CBD products made in, or imported to, France must have 0% THC, which is less than the EU mandated max of.2%, essentially creating a ban on CBD oil. In May of 2020, the highest EU court ruled that it’s illegal to stop the importation of CBD between member states so long as it is grown by EU standards.
This discrepancy between French law and EU law was brought into the spotlight by a case concerning the importation and marketing of a CBD vape product which was made in the Czech Republic under standard EU requirements, and then imported to France. The import went against French laws banning CBD made from certain parts of the plant (leaves and flowers) and containing any amount of THC. But France’s law banning CBD imports goes against EU law which permits the free movement of goods across borders so long as negative consequences can’t be identified.
The decision as of yet is not binding, with a final decision scheduled for later this year. Should it go through as is, it will create case law that will legalize CBD across Europe by abolishing the ability for a country to restrict its import. This would be binding for all European Union countries. It should be noted that as this goes on, stories have been released that the executive branch of the EU is currently questioning whether CBD should be considered a narcotic as per WHO cannabis scheduling, with an upcoming vote on that scheduling recommendation coming up.
If CBD is ruled a narcotic, this would greatly impact the current CBD industry by making hemp-derived CBD no longer a food product, take it out of novel food regulation, and essentially ban it in Europe. This is still up in the air for now, but if the decision ends up being to ban CBD, France wins its case by default, to the detriment of the legal cannabis industry.
So, what’s the deal with the on-the-spot fines?
If all this makes it sound like the people of France don’t enjoy a nice toke, that sentiment is very much mistaken. Cannabis is the #1 illicit drug used in France, with 21.8% of young adults having used it in 2018 alone. So, it suffices to say that strict laws haven’t been a deterrent as of yet. To step it up a notch, France just instituted on-the-spot fines for cannabis users after having tested the method in smaller areas of France.
The €200 fines are meant to supposedly curb drug violence, with some seeing it as a loosening of laws, though I’m not sure why. While it might get an offender out of jail time, it does little to decriminalize anything, and creates a heavy-handed approach. Fines can be reduced to €150 if paid within two weeks, and increased to €450 if left outstanding for 45 days.
Why this is being done is hard to say. It’s such a strange law to come out at a time like now, in a place like France, regardless of its cannabis laws. It’s the kind of move that makes it look like France wants some easy money, which is funny considering how much money the country is missing out on, simply by not using its industrial hemp to produce medications. If these fines are really a play to get money, and not about curbing violence, the French government has it all wrong. On the other hand, if this really is about curbing drug violence, the French government still has it so very, very wrong as fines have never been known to do such a thing before.
It’ll be interesting to see how long these fines last, the general reaction to them, and if they quell the drug violence problem that they’ve been cited to help with (funny, right?) It will also be interesting to see what happens between France and the EU, and how that ruling effects CBD exports and imports across the EU. Last, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with WHO cannabis scheduling, and whether CBD will go back to being a narcotic.
Personally, I’ll continue to find it funny that the country liberal enough to bring us the ménage à trois, can’t handle a tiny bit of THC in its CBD or even entertain minor personal use laws for cannabis. But I guess that’s life. Sometimes progress moves quick and easy, and sometimes it’s like France.
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