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France to Decriminalise Cannabis Possession within Months, Interior Minister Says

France’s newly-appointed interior minister has said that personal cannabis possession may no longer be prosecuted from as soon as September, although this change may be accompanied by unprecedented strict rules on people with convictions for selling drugs.

Gérard Collomb, the Minister of the Interior, said that new rules are set to be implemented under which someone found in possession of cannabis will be given a ticket and required to pay a fine, instead of being prosecuted or imprisoned. The plans, which he revealed during an interview with French news channel BFMTV on 24 May, could be in place "within three to four months", he said.

Under French law, there are three classifications of offences: serious crimes referred to as "crimes", less serious crimes called "délits", and non-criminal offences referred to as "contraventions". Collomb says cannabis possession will be downgraded in classification to a contravention, which cannot be punished with criminalisation or incarceration.

Emmanuel Macron, who was inaugurated as president on 14 May, has previously indicated that a fine for cannabis possession would be up to €100 (£86/$111). Prior to his successful election, Macron said that the “regime of contraventions would be sufficient to sanction [cannabis use]”, described cannabis prohibition as “[posing] a security problem”, and described the legal regulation of the drug as potentially "efficient".

Cannabis use is prevalent in France, with around 550,000 people – or 1.5 per cent of the population aged 15-64 – using the drug every day, left-wing French think tank Terra Nova claims.

Despite this, France has some of the harshest cannabis laws in the EU, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). The possession of cannabis for personal use can currently be punished by up to 10 years in prison or with a fine of up to €7.5 million (£6.5m/$8.4m). Both such punishments are rare, and possession convictions often result in far smaller fines or warnings, however – individual officers have the discretion in how to handle cannabis offences, and French police have been accused of discriminatory tactics.

While Collomb’s plans appear to mark a significant progressive change in French drug policy, one advocate for drug policy reform in the country has expressed concern.

Benjamin Jeanroy – co-founder and head of drug policy at French “action tank” reform organisation ECHO – said that the change would “alleviate the work of the state, but keep the social injustice” that drug prohibition produces; regardless of an end to criminalisation, he suggested, discrimination and marginalisation would likely continue unabated.

“The current laws primarily target people from poor areas and immigrant communities, and this would likely continue despite the change. These are also the people who may have [financial] issues in paying the fine,” Jeanroy told TalkingDrugs. “This [change] is not enough; we were hoping for more efficient, economically-sound, and science-based responses under the new government”.

While an end to the prosecution of personal cannabis possession offences is being presented as a scale back of the war on drugs, Collomb has also described plans to accompany this change with new repressive restrictions on the freedom of movement of certain people with drug convictions.

"The problem today is that someone is arrested for [selling drugs] and nothing happens," Collomb told French news channel, BFMTV. "Two days later, he returns to his neighbourhood and [sells drugs again]".

To combat this issue, Collomb has said that people who have been convicted of selling drugs will be temporarily prohibited from returning to their local area. Doing so, he claimed, would reduce drug trafficking, as well as the chance of the convicted individual engaging in retaliatory violence or intimidating behaviour. He also implied that stricter measures on drug trafficking can reduce terrorism.

Jeanroy told us that this measure poses inherent risks to civil rights, and “keeps France going in the same direction [that it has] been going for the past 40 years” in terms of drug policy. Again, he noted, this measure would particularly harm poor people in urban communities, as “they usually live where they sell”; thus further marginalising an already criminalised group.

If the plans go ahead, France will join several other Western European countries which have already stopped prosecuting people for the personal possession of cannabis, including Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

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