Marijuana
Illustration: Marijuana Photo by AFP
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PARIS - It was Napoleon's troops who first brought it over, carting home the mysterious dried leaf called hashish from Egypt in the early 1800s. Soon, it was being sold in pharmacies across France and gaining adherents, especially among the bohemian intellectual crowd.

Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a medical doctor who was one of the first to become interested in the drug's properties, and his friend the French philosopher and writer Theophile Gautier even formed a famous little social club - quite appropriately named the 'Club des Hachichins,' or the Hashish Club - dedicated to the exploration of drug-induced experience.

The club gathered regularly between 1844 and 1849 at the gothic Hotel Lauzun on Ile St Louis, and boasted as members such Parisian litterateurs Alexandre Dumas, Gerard de Nerval, Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Eugene Delacroix and Charles Baudelaire, who lived in the club's attic for a while. Ritualistically garbed in Arab clothing, the activities of the 'Hachichins' seemed to consist mainly of drinking strong coffee liberally laced with hashish, and then talking and writing into the nights about the experience of being stoned.

"The doctor stood by a buffet (and ) spooned a morsel of paste or greenish jam about as large as a thumb from a crystal vase on each saucer," wrote Gautier, describing the scene. "The doctor's face radiated enthusiasm; his eyes glittered, his purple cheeks were aglow, the veins in his temples stood out strongly, and he breathed heavily through dilated nostrils. 'This will be deducted from your share in Paradise,' he said as he handed me my portion..."

These days the Hotel Lauzun is occasionally the venue for formal state events at which one is told not to touch the delicate antique furnishings or lean on the decoratively painted walls. The intellectual crowd has moved on to other neighborhoods to escape the ice cream-buying tourists and the overpriced cafes, and the liberal drug laws of those heady days have changed drastically.

Indeed, today, France has some of the most conservative drugs laws in Europe. Since 1970 the law stipulates that the use of cannabis is punishable by a year in jail and fines of up to 7,500 euros, while cultivation, possession of large quantities and trafficking in the drug are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

In practice, the police and courts often turn a blind eye to many cases of personal use, especially in the capital - but still, some 137,000 people were arrested last year for smoking cannabis, according to Michel Henry, a journalist with Liberation, and the author of "Drogues: pourquoi la legalization est inevitable" (Drugs: why legalization is inevitable ). But whether the harsh law has diminished the French penchant for cannabis is questionable.

Heavy users

According to the latest statistics released this week by the National Institute for Health Education and Prevention, and the Observatoire des Drogues et des Toxicomanies, a public body that carries out studies on smoking, there are 13.4 million people in this nation of 62 million who are either regular or occasional cannabis users - one million more than when the last statistics were gathered five years ago. This makes France's level of consumption among the highest in Europe alongside Spain, the UK and Germany. Occasional users are defined in the study as those who have tried cannabis more than three times in their life: Regular users, in turn, of which there are about 1.2 million according to the report, indulge anywhere from 10 times a month to everyday.

"We never stopped smoking," admits Guillaume, a middle-aged lecturer in comparative literature, at a drinks party in a sprawling apartment in the ninth district, a glass of red wine in one hand and a joint dangling in the other. "The laws changed, but not our attraction to this small delight." While young people aged 15 to 24 are the largest consumers of cannabis, according to the statistics, usage is high across all age groups, and cuts through virtually all socio-economic sectors. "There are young disaffected people in the housing projects of the suburbs doing drugs, and there are members of the nation's intellectual, business and political classes indulging," explains Henry. "It's not a class thing."

The incongruity between the number of French using marijuana and the strict laws against it has prompted repeated debate over the past several decades, and led to numerous calls for legalization.

The latest call for legalization

The most recent push has come from a high level parliamentary report released earlier this month which concluded that it was impossible to continue "advocating the illusion of abstinence," and recommended that the drug be subject to "controlled legalization" - meaning that its cultivation and sale would become a state-controlled activity, like the sale of alcohol and tobacco. The report, which has the support of various opposition members, suggests that the state produce cannabis in sufficient quantity, be aware of any deficiencies in production which could create a new illegal market, and sell it through government sanctioned shops.

"That prohibition does not solve the problem today is a fact," Socialist MP Daniel Vaillant, one of the instigators of the report, told the National Assembly. "So let's try the challenge of regulation." Vaillant, who served as France's Interior Minister from 2000 to 2002, and who represents the 18th district of Paris, which has a huge population of cannabis users, has been proposing new cannabis legislation since 2003. And he is not the only senior politician to do so.

Bernard Kouchner, the former health minister as well as foreign minister, has been making the same arguments for years. A medical doctor and the founder of the Nobel Peace prize-winning aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, Kouchner is on the record as saying he has both used marijuana himself and would like to regulate its use in France. "It would be ridiculous to close your eyes to reality," he told the press a decade ago, when he was health minister. "Tobacco is more addictive than hash. As far as I know, no one has ever died from smoking cannabis."

Besides these sorts of arguments, advocates argue that legalizing cannabis would allow the state to monitor and tax a clandestine market worth an estimated 1 billion euros a year, in the same way that it regulates and taxes sales of alcohol.

Sarkozy opposed

Meanwhile, President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative ruling UMP party has largely rejected all calls for changing the law, and argues that legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis would increase the number of users and that traffickers would move into distributing harder drugs.

Those opposed to legalization, including Apaire Etienne, President of the Interministerial Mission for the fight against drugs and drug addiction, argue that making an already popular substance even more readily available to young people will carry a heavy price tag in the future.

Meanwhile, the country itself seems unsure of what it wants, with a slim majority here tending to agree with the more conservative viewpoint. A survey in Le Parisien last week showed that more than half the French (58 percent ) say they are opposed to the decriminalization of cannabis and 50 percent think decriminalization would not reduce either traffic or crime, as opposed to 47 percent who believe it would.

But sociologist Patrick Pharo, director of research at France's National Center for Scientific Research and author of "Philosophie pratique de la drogue," believes that it is only a matter of time before there is growing pressure and the law does change here.

"The reason is not domestic," he explains. "It has to do with the fact that the international war on drugs is now considered a resounding failure, denounced not only by most of the scientific community, but also by many former heads of state and politicians." He compares the attitude to drugs to the attitude to homosexuality. "One day, international conventions simply turn around," he says. "And that will be that. Of course, the two cases are radically different," he hastens to add. "Homosexuality is something that does not hurt anyone, while drugs, illicit and licit, clearly do. They are dangerous," he stresses.

But, he concludes, "...it is precisely because these are potentially deadly pleasures that it is important to regulate the drugs and provide information and help, and not to ban them - which seems to have had no effect on use, and even encouraged it."