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Hemp and Heritage in France

Updated: Aug 29

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. 

Screenshot 2019-02-20 20.37.21

The recent AllHemp conference reflects an ongoing renaissance for hemp in France, which in 1970 only grew 170 hectares compared to its 17,000+ today. This “return of hemp to the Hexagon,” as one cultivator put it, stems from the entrepreneurial activities of the seven major hemp cultivators that comprise InterChanvre coupled with changes made to French law in the early 2000s that legally opened the door for growth. During the second half of the 20th century, the cultivation of cannabis for the production of hemp was legally limited in France to the Aube region for the production of paper pulp. However, in 2004 the French government aligned its policies with those of the EU and permitted the cultivation of Cannabis sativa with testable THC levels not to exceed 0.2% (known as Regulation 619/70). French and EU law likewise regulate the sale of hemp seed, requiring seeds to be certified, registered, and sold in packaging affixed with the official label of the SOC (Service official de contrôle). The SOC also conducts yearly tests on both seeds and the plants from a sampling of 30% of the country’s C. sativa crops to ensure THC levels remain below the 0.2% limit. The growers of InterChanvre view these regulations as “key legislative framework that prevents the drifts that made hemp almost disappear globally in the 1960s,” and currently allows “France to conquer, with a rate of 0.2%, new opportunities, notably in dietary supplements, building and automobile materials, all sectors that require very strict specifications.”[3]

This “drift,” of course, refers to the blurring of distinctions between species of cannabis, and namely between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, in French law during the last decades of the 20th century. Much as the U.S. had done in the immediate aftermath of the chaotic Sixties, France heavily curtailed the cultivation of hemp from the 1970s onward as they prioritized the eradication of the consumption of hemp’s exotic and troublesome cousin, Cannabis indica. The French law of 30 December 1970 (Public Health Article L. 627), coined “Droit de la Drogue,” prohibited the cultivation of all “intoxicating plants” in France, and especially “cannabis,” written without official distinction made between species. This law marked an official reversal of the scientific idea, widely held in France and the West since the late 18th century, that cannabis had evolved into two species reflective of and produced by contrasting cultures of cultivation and consumption.

As most reading this blog already know, in 1753 Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus classified cannabis grown in Sweden for the production of hemp as Cannabis sativa, and in 1783 French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck labeled samples from Southeast Asia supplied by French explorer, Pierre Sonnerat, Cannabis indica.[4] Lamarck argued that “Indian cannabis” differed significantly from Europe’s “cultivated cannabis” in stalk height and thickness, branching pattern, flowering cycle, and leaflet size. Whereas C. sativa took roughly 4 months to grow an average height of 4 to 6 feet with thin foliage, herbaceous (meaning thin and pliable) stalk, C. indica grew more quickly (2-3 months) and rarely above 4 feet and conversely had thick foliage, a hard, wood-like stalk, and resinous flowers. Lamarck rooted these botanical differences and thus the phylogenetic split of the plant into two distinct species in their contrasting histories and cultures of consumption in Europe and Southeast Asia. Cultivated cannabis, Lamarck remarked, “is an extremely interesting and useful plant…all the world makes productive use of its prepared bark to fashion ropes and cloth.” While cannabis from India, he contrasted, “constitutes an altogether different species,” used primarily by Indians to “procure a species of intoxication (espèce d’ivresse) …that disturbs the brain.”[5]

What some of you might not know is that Lamarck pulled from competing mythos of cannabis developing in France since at least the 17th century to articulate the “hidden architecture” and “deeper causes” beneath the plants’ distinct botanical profiles. For Lamarck, Cannabis sativa’s biological properties flowed from its long history of cultivation and wide-spread use across French society for commercial and military purposes. Indeed, hemp is rooted in the history of early modern France. Finance Minister under Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, as a notable example, understood hemp’s importance to naval power and to the Kingdom’s ability to compete with rival England and realize its growing colonial ambitions. In the late 1660s he thus constructed new rope-making facilities, or “corederie,” at naval yards in Le Havre, Brest, Toulon, Marseilles, and Rochefort-sur-Mer.[6]  The Corderie Royale, as it came to be known, in Rochefort-sur-Mer became operational in 1669 and pumped out ropes for the French Navy for nearly 200 years until its official operations ceased in 1865.[7] Colbert believed his network of ports and corderies with Rochefort at its center would provide France the infrastructure necessary to extend and maintain French power abroad for a century to come and thus viewed the cultivation of cannabis as a geopolitical priority for the French Kingdom.[8]  By the late 1680s Colbert successfully had stimulated domestic cannabis cultivation in Britany, Auvergne, and Garonne, as well as in Quebec under the direction of Jean Talon, Count d’Orainsville.[9] Though the French occasionally imported supplies from Russia and Piedmont in moments of shortage, Colbert’s promotion of French cannabis across the empire ensured consistent sourcing and prices for the French military through the turn into the 18th century and simultaneously rooted chanvre cultivé in the intertwined political and agricultural histories of early modern France. For Lamarck, this history of cannabis cultivation in France provided the hidden architecture, while the “industrious” conversion of the plant into hemp for commercial and military uses provided the deeper causes driving the transformation of a once-Persian plant into a cultivated species native to France and the West.

Conversely, Lamarck affixed the taxon Cannabis indica to a competing mythos also developing in early modern France and Europe about “chanvre des Indes,” a distinct variety of cannabis grown by non-Western cultures for the production and consumption of intoxicants. Having no direct experience with cannabis-based intoxicants or the myriad cultures of “les indes Orientales” and “l’Orient” (the majority of which did not feature cannabis consumption), Lamarck pulled from sensationalized reports of cannabis-crazed foreigners made popular by the literary works of Antoine Galland, “translator” of Les Mille et Une Nuits, and the travel writings of French and European explorers, such as Jean-Baptiste Travenier and Carsten Niebuhr, to explain the organic structures that produced the distinct species of Cannabis indica. Niebuhr’s tales of a hash-smoking servant attacking a group of soldiers, much as the use of hashish by African cannibals in the story of Sindbad from Galland’s translation of Les Nuits, connected the consumption of cannabis-based intoxicants to acts of violence and irrationality among non-Western “savages.” These stories of hash-crazed Arabs and Africans provided the historical and biological backdrops for Lamarck’s scientific classification of Cannabis indica.

Lamarck’s official division of cannabis into distinct species reflective of different cultures of cultivation and consumption has remained to this day, with some variations and with the exception of the aforementioned legal conflation between 1970 and 2004, the foundation of popular and scientific perceptions of the controversial plant in France. And InterChanvre effectively, and I believe ethically, has exploited official acceptance of this division to distance the their industry from illicit cannabis-based intoxicants to ensure continued growth in a nation with strict anti-drug laws. However, by continuing to pull from an archaic mythos about “chanvre cultivé” set against that of  “chanvre indien” to concretize the legitimate and legal status of cannabis grown for hemp in France, InterChanvre contributes to the kind of reductive thinking about cannabis that has plagued drug policy reforms in the country for decades, and ultimately led to the heavy handed prohibitions of 1970 that nearly wiped out the hemp industry in the first place. I believe the way forward for cannabis legalization in France (and elsewhere) is to stop viewing the plant as a separate species, to jettison obsolete stereotypes and catchwords that only muddy the waters, and instead focus energies on creating an ethical and efficient regulatory structure to control cannabis cultivation and the manufacture and sale of medicinal, recreational, and industrial products deemed legal and appropriate by elected legislatures.


1. China was the top hemp cultivator in the world in 2016 at 45,000 ha, followed by Canada at 31,000 ha. See Le Chanvre: La culture écologique, agronimique et éco-responsible (InterChanvre: 2018):

2. Twitter coverage of the ALLHelp can be found here:

3. Interchanvre, “Comminiqué de Presse –– La filière chanvre français milite pour le maintien de taux de THC à o,2% et la dissociation du chanvre du cannabis,” (Paris, le 29 mars 2018):

4. Carl Linnaeus, Species Plantarum 2 (Laurentii Salvii, Stockholm, 1753), 1057; Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck, Encyclopédique de botanique, Tome 1 (Paris, 1783), 695.

5. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Encyclopédique de botanique, 695.

6. Charles Woolsey Cole, Colbert and a century of French Mercantilism, 2 Vols. (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1939); Serge Allegret, “Histoire du chanvre,” Le chanvre industriel, 13-42.; Jennifer R. McCaskill, “Cordage,” La Belle: The Archaeology of a Seventeenth-Century Vessel of New World Colonization, eds. James E. Bruseth, Amy A. Borgens, Bradford M. Jones, and Eric D. Ray (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2017), 239-254.

7. The museum at the Corderie Royale de Rochefort-Centre International de la Mer survives and thrives today, attracting over 400,000 mostly French tourists every year. It also is a candidate for UNESCO’s List du patrimoine mondiale, or the World Heritage Site List. See Jean-Yves Duyck et Jean-Dominique, “Communiquer un patrimoine culturel: le cas de la commercialization de la Corderie Royale de Rochefort,” Management & Avenir (1:15 (2008): 174-196.

8. Serge Allegret, “Histoire du chanvre,” 17; Charles Woolsey Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism, Vol. I, 102-109, 324-328.

9. Charles Woolsey Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism, Vol. II, 524.

#France #Frenchdrughistory #Hemp #IndustrialHemp

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