France reflecting on drug use after Winehouse passing… huh..?

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Drugs debate sparked in France

With the death of Amy Winehouse hitting the headlines world over, the debate about drug use is raging in the news once again.

The drug use wasn’t an issue before she died? That’s a big stretch……once we separate hard drugs from cannabis, maybe we can get somewhere….-UA

Although the cause of Winehouse’s death is not yet known and speculation over it being related to substance abuse are inappropriate at this point, the rumours remain inevitable given the singer’s lengthy and well-documented battle with drugs and the fact that she has died at such a tragically young age.

 

She may have only passed away 5 days ago but the likes of Russell Brand have already started waxing lyrical on the problem of drink and drug addiction, and should it turn out that Winehouse’s death is related to either one, or both, there will be much more to come. The current debate in the French government regarding the legalisation of cannabis is thus rather timely.

 

It has long been the case that whilst alcohol and tobacco consumption is legal and socially accepted, the use of cannabis is forbidden and punishable by law. Last month, the former French Socialist Interior Minister, Daniel Vaillant, launched a new debate on the issue in parliament by proposing that the punishment for those caught in possession of or consuming cannabis should be softened through a process of ‘légalisation contrôlée’ (controlled legalisation). This is not the first time Vaillant has pushed the subject: back in 2003 he announced his idea for a special government committee whose only task would be the supervision and control of cannabis production and distribution in France. The delegates of the Parti Socialiste (PS) argue that this could establish a ‘policy of risk minimisation’ and could also stem consumption.

 

Currently, France has some of the strictest drug laws in the EU, with large fines meted out to both drug dealers and consumers if they are caught. Convictions can carry a one-year prison term or a fine of 3,750 euros. Yet despite the severe punishment facing users, there remains an extremely high number of people dealing, buying and smoking weed.

According to a study by the OFDT (Observatoire français des drogues et des toxicomanies), 1.2-million people regularly consume cannabis in France. By regularly they mean more than 10 times a month. Since the 90s, the number of French consumers has increased constantly and consistently. As a result, France has the second highest number of cannabis smokers in Europe after Spain. It remains ahead of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and other illegal substances, as the most consumed drug in France. Even though there are tough laws to police the situation, they do little to put people off smoking. Only a small percentage of cannabis users see the strong arm of the law anyway.

 

It is suggested that the proposed controlled legalisation of cannabis would reduce its use in French society as opposed to encouraging an increase as one might first assume. As the Green Party candidate for the presidential election in 2012, Nicolas Hulot, has explained, by removing the taboo surrounding cannabis (by reducing, but not eradicating, its illegal status) you would remove the allure and many people would have less interest in trying it in the first place. Hulot has also pointed out that the public money poured into trying to implement cannabis control through the police and the courts might be better invested in a drugs education programme for young people.

However, it would seem that the general public does not agree: in a recent survey by market research institute Ifop, two-thirds of the French population said that they were against any kind of legalisation. A public debate on the issue is slated for 2012.

The argument surrounding the legalisation of drugs rages not only in France but also in many other European countries, including the Netherlands and the UK. Those against relaxing the legal status of cannabis often argue that the health effects are not properly understood and that the strong links between its use and mental health problems, such as manic depression and schizophrenia, are enough to keep it prohibited. There is also the argument that marijuana use is the first step onto a slippery slope of hard drug dependency, although there are many, many studies that suggest that this theory is simply not true. It should also be pointed out that the harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco are proven yet both remain legal throughout the majority of the Western world, with the most addictive substance in world being, not heroine or cocaine, but nicotine. Marijuana comes way down the list of addictive substances, featuring after alcohol and caffeine.

A spliffing good story in Nice
Although France has some of the strictest laws in Europe regarding selling, buying and consuming cannabis it has little impact on reducing the presence of dealers in cities like Nice, where they are often omnipresent at night. Here RT journalist, Kristin Altmann describes how easy it is to get high on the beach:
It was a Friday night a couple of weeks ago. A group of us were sitting on the Opéra Plage in Nice enjoying a bottle of wine. Suddenly, a stranger approached. He didn’t bother to say hello but chose instead to come straight to the point: “Do you smoke hashish?” he asked with a heavy French accent. Whether buying or selling, it appears anything goes.
We politely declined and he went on his way. Later, when two British friends joined our huddle, he approached again in order to push his product on the newcomers. Given that we weren’t even trying to buy hash, it is clear that for those who are looking to get hold of it in Nice are unlikely to have much trouble succeeding.
The later and darker we go into the night, the more the cannabis business flourishes. However, only refined variants of the product are being sold and bought: the dried leaves of the female plant (marijuana) for example, or hashish in its compressed form. Almost everywhere, the drug and its distinctive aroma can be detected, this is true all over Europe but in France it seems to be an extremely big problem. Never does a night go by without the spicy smoke passing above our heads as we sip our wine from plastic cups on the beach.

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