Cannabis, the downside of the criminal policy reform {in France}

by Pierre-Yves Galléty

This article was originally published on on Monday 18 September and written by Julia Pascual. The criminal reform referred to in this article is a change of sanction from a prison sentence and a fine of up to €3,750 to a low fixed fine for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Translation by Pierre-Yves Galléty.

Analysis. The scenario of implementation of a fine for illegal drug use announces a major transfer of criminal policy from the judiciary system to the police forces, whilst preventing a health- and social-focused approach to the problem.

The reform of criminal policy desired by the President of the Republic regarding the misuse of drugs made several happy but it simultaneously disappointed others. After the audits conducted by the parliamentary information task force that took place over the last two weeks on the implementation of a fixed fine for the misuse of drugs, a clear split line appears and along with it the flaws of a reform which looks more and more like a missed opportunity.

On the one hand, law enforcement forces are in favour of being able to fine people who smoke cannabis on the streets without needing for a magistrate to get involved. This measure presents two benefits: law enforcement forces would be cleared from heavy paperwork and they would be able to apply immediate sanction.

On the other hand, the actors from the justice and healthcare systems as well as delegates of cannabis users are expressing strong reservations. They notably reproach the Government plan from lacking a health and social approach to the issue, because a standardised approach formulated as a fine prevents any plan for an approach oriented towards treatment (already marginal in the current criminal policy regarding cannabis use).

The young particularly affected

When questioned about these frustrations, Députés Eric Poulliat (La République en marche) and Robin Reda (Les Républicains) members of the parliamentary information taskforce seemed narrowed in the perimetre of their attributions. Robin Reda conceded “I think that you clearly understood that the mission we were entrusted with was to analyse a particular measure which, we have to agree with you, may sound reductive” during the debate.

The fixed fine imagined by Emmanuel Macron is not a solution that can solve the failures of the criminal policy in effect since 1970. Close to 200,000 people are arrested every year for infraction to the laws regarding the prohibition of illegal drugs and 80% of them are consumers, almost exclusively of cannabis. Even though cannabis use if severely sanctioned by the law – up to a €3,750 fine and one year of prison, most of prosecutions end up in alternative pursuits, essentially reminders of the law, in order to unclog the justice department.

Moreover this legislation doesn’t restrain the current levels of consumption {in France}, which are the highest in Europe. There are 1.4 million estimated regular cannabis users in France, and 700,000 daily users according to the Observatoire français des drogues et des toxicomanies {French Observatory of Drugs and Addictions}. The young are particularly affected because cannabis is the drug they experiment the earliest. At age 17, almost one in two young people has already smoked cannabis.

Trying not to be blamed for having a lax behaviour

But the plan for a fixed fine doesn’t apply to them since minors depend on another specific jurisdiction. This is Emmanuel Macron’s first deadlock. The president of the Mission interministérielle dans la lutte contre les drogues et les conduites addictives (Mildeca) {inter-ministry mission in the fight against drugs and addictive behaviours} Nicolas Prisse stressed the fact that it is the prevention and early identification of the most vulnerable young people that is the most effective lever to limit the consumption of illegal drugs.

The offence of use which leads to imprisonment would be maintained.

In reality the current Government doesn’t seem eager to shake the foundations on which the current criminal policy are built. The offence of use which leads to imprisonment would be maintained – in order for recidivists to be oriented towards the classical judiciary system and for enforcement forces to be able to conserve their right to hold convicted users in custody for 24h before releasing them. However many agree that that this does little, in not nothing, to the dismantling of drug trafficking networks. By limiting his actions towards a full decriminalisation of cannabis, is Mr. Macron trying not to be put in trial for a lax behaviour.

Around 100 people are currently incarcerated for simple use of cannabis in France. Christine Lazerges, president of the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme (CDCDH) {National commission of counsel on human rights} and in favour of further decriminalisation insisted that “our prisons don’t need that kind of criminals” during her hearing. “Only a certain social category of users are prosecuted, never comedians or Henri IV high schoolers have ever been condemned. It is a strong breach of principles of equality.”

Balance of powers

A fixed fine poses a number of other issues. Jean-Paul Jean, ex-president of the Cour de Cassation {French Supreme Court}, was worried about the “major transfer” of the criminal policy from the judiciary system to the police forces with “police forces that have a difficult relationship with the young”. The impact of this movement which modifies the balance of powers needs to be looked into, even more so that Emmanuel Macron has promised to extend the principle of fixed fine to other offences.

In the future fixed fines could be applied to shoplifting, curb side sales, and even vandalism. “It is a disruption, a swing to administrative criminal justice” insisted Mr. Jean. It is a significant risk for a reform that in fine could be seen as a way of simplifying procedures or increasing the revenues of the State.

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