Updated: Aug 13
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. His new book, Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth Century France, will be released by McGill-Queen’s University Press next month.
The push to legalize cannabis in France, where the drug is widely consumed but prohibited, is gaining momentum.
The grassroots pro-grass activism of NORML France has, in the past decade, been bolstered by growing popular demand and public calls for cannabis legalization by French entrepreneurs, farmers, physicians, economists, politicians, and even police unions. In June 2019, seventy public figures signed and published an open letter in the popular news magazine L’Obs decrying the nation’s “costly,” “ineffective” and “repressive” prohibitionist policies and calling for the “supervised legalization” in France in the name of public health and violence prevention.
Citing this growing movement, the French National Assembly in October 2019 approved the first “therapeutic cannabis” trials in the country since the drug was banned in 1970. This state-regulated medical trial, which will include 3000 patients suffering from muscular, epileptic, and terminal diseases, was to commence in October 2020 but was postponed until January 2021 due to covid-19. The French government also announced plans to reduce cannabis possession penalties from one year imprisonment and/or a €3750 fine to a €200 spot fine.
This June, François-Michel Lambert, deputy in the French National Assembly representing Bouches-du-Rhône, and dozens of cosigned politicians, physicians, activists, and academics, applauded these efforts and renewed the open letter from the previous year in L’Obs, demanding that “after the covid-19 crisis, we must legalize cannabis, quickly!” “At a time when we are looking for billions of euros to deal with the health, economic, social crises caused by Covid-19,” Lambert writes, “legalization could bring in €2-2.8 billion per year and create between 30,000 and 80,000 jobs.”
But absent from these mounting calls to legalize cannabis in France is a sincere discussion of the ways in which the nation’s war on drugs has disproportionately targeted ethnic and religious minorities, an honest engagement with the colonial history that produced this injustice, and a comprehensive plan to fix it moving forward.
Though cannabis is cultivated, sold, and consumed in France more often by Whites, many believe, as right wing pundit Eric Zemmour put it in 2010, that “the majority of [drug] traffickers [in France] are Arabs and Blacks.”
This false but prominent perception that ethnic and religious minorities are to blame for drugs and associated violent crime has long plagued French drug control efforts. During the debates leading up to the creation of the “law of 31 December 1970,” which structures drug policing and prohibition in France today, politicians left, right, and center described social unrest and drug-related crime in France as a “foreign plague” spread by Arab drug traffickers set on undermining the health, morality, and social order of the body politic. In his address to the Assembly at the first open debate in October 1969, Gaullist Pierre Mazeaud urged the government to do all it could to catch and expel “undesirable foreigners” engaged in drug smuggling, including “hippies” and “persons who travel excessively to the Middle or Far Orient.” Daniel Benoist, a socialist deputy, echoed Mazeaud, arguing that the student rebellions, street violence, and the rise in drug-related arrests all stemmed from “the introduction of foreign elements into our country that brought with them radical philosophies and at the same time drugs.” Driving the point home, fellow socialist deputy René Chazelle reminded the Assembly that the word “assassin” shared an etymology with the word “hashish,” both deriving from the name of an ancient cult of cannabis-smoking murderers in the Islamic world, the “hachichins” in the French, roughly “hashish-eaters” in the English. “This filiation of drugs and crime,” Chazelle warned the Assembly, “is not simply assonance, it is today a reality.”
The stereotyping of the hash-crazed Arab assassin has a long history in French and European literature, stretching back to the era of the crusades. Marco Polo’s famous travelogue, Livre des merveilles du monde, introduced Europeans to the fantastic story of the drug-crazed Ismaili Assassins, their leader Hassan-i Sabbah, and their fortress paradise at Alamut (in modern-day northern Iran). Though this cult of assassins did exist and carry out numerous military campaigns during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (mostly against Islamic leaders), modern studies have revealed Polo’s depiction of the cult to be a gripping, but mostly fictitious story intended to captivate Western readers. Moreover, there is no evidence that the cult used hashish or any other intoxicant. Contemporaries in the Arab world did refer to the cult as the “hashish-eaters,” but several historians, and notably Farhad Daftary, have argued that this term designated “an expression of contempt” for the cult’s “wild beliefs and extravagant behavior” and thus “was a derisive comment on their conduct rather than a description of their practices.” Up through the twentieth century, however, Europeans, especially the French, rarely questioned the credulity of Polo’s story, and the mythical cult of the “Hachichins” remained central to French definitions and depictions of Arabo-Muslim cultures and, consequently, of cannabis use.
In 1970 numerous members of the French National Assembly deployed this centuries-old, racialized myth of the Hachichins to make sense of and connect drug abuse and anti-state violence. Convinced by this rhetoric and explanation, they hardened penalties and lengthened jail time for drug dealer and gave police forces unprecedented power to suspend basic civil liberties in the pursuit of suspected traffickers. The law of 1970 also deemed those convicted of possession or public intoxication “victims of addiction” and required them either to undergo rehabilitation treatment supervised by state-regulated medical institutions or to suffer criminal prosecution. In short, the law victimized drug users, defined as victims of a foreign-born plague in need of state-supervised medical treatment and support, and vilified drug traffickers, understood as hashish-pushing Arab assassins.
Moreover, as a 2009 study conducted by Open Society Justice Initiative and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique revealed, France’s current war on drugs disproportionately targets the nation’s ethnic minorities, believed by legislators and police to be the primary traffickers and distributors of illegal drugs in France. The joint study concluded that Black and Arab Parisians were, respectively, six and eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. A 2015 study conducted by the Association Française pour la Réduction des Risques (AFRR) also showed that Black and Arabo-Muslim communities in France are systematically targeted by police and are nearly ten times more likely than white French citizens to be stopped by police for random identity checks that often lead to drug arrests. This no doubt contributes to the mass incarceration of Muslims in France today, who make up roughly 8 per cent of the nation’s population but account for over 50 per cent of its prison population of 70,000. Thus, far from mere rhetoric, the racialized stereotyping that intellectually underpinned France’s drug prohibition measures has translated into the disproportionate policing and mass incarceration of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities today.
As the current French government moves to reform France’s drug laws to address the growing popular demand in France for cannabis legalization, there is no better time than now to explore the largely untold colonial history of cannabis use and prohibition in modern France. Taming Cannabis begins this process by exploring the rise and fall of hashish in France, from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, where the French first encountered and regulated hashish consumption, through the subsequent medicalization of hashish in metropolitan France between 1800 and 1850, to the criminalization of hashish in French Algeria during the 1850s and 1860s. As the book details, French authorities across the nineteenth century routinely argued that hashish consumption, especially among Muslim North Africans, produced in users a wide array of behaviours deemed irrationally violent and threatening to social order. Moreover, and ironically, this epistemic linkage of hashish with irrational violence – concretized in the scientifically validated mythistory of the Hachichins – provided the primary impetus for French pharmacists and physicians to tame the “exotic” drug and to deploy it in the homeopathic treatment of mental illness and epidemic disease throughout the 1830s and 1840s. At first heralded by French and Western physicians as a “wonder drug” capable of curing insanity, cholera, and the plague, hashish quickly proved ineffective against these feared diseases and fell from repute by the mid-1850s. However, the association between hashish use and Muslim violence remained and quickly became codified in French colonial medicine and law by the 1860s as a significant cause of mental illness, violence, and anti-state resistance among indigenous Muslim Algerians.Contemporary French policy makers can learn much from the history of their nation’s first major encounter with cannabis during the middle Nineteenth century. For starters, the fact that the same Orientalized myths that underpin anti-cannabis laws in France today were used a century earlier to produce and widely circulate hashish-based medicines throughout the French empire speaks to their absurdity and the urgent need for drug policies in France (and elsewhere) to be unmoored from archaic ideas about hash-crazed Muslim assassins and reaffixed to realistic and ethical public health initiatives. Not only have these myths led to a “guerre raciale à la drogue” in France that disproportionately targets the nation’s Black and Brown communities, believed by legislators and the police to be the primary traffickers and distributors of illegal narcotics in the Fifth Republic. But they also have stymied the nation’s research into medical marijuana, kept thousands of patients from receiving effective care, and isolated the French economy from the exponentially expanding global cannabis market.
But if France were to engage its colonial past, reform and make reparations for its prohibitionist policies, and open more room for medical research and commercialization inside the hexagon, perhaps it could again become a global leader in this new medical marijuana movement.
 Journal Officiel de la République Française: Débat Parlementaire – Assemblée Nationale, Compte Rendu des Séances (Hereafter JORF) 63 (Vendredi, 24 Octobre 1969): 2935.
 Ibid., 2944.
 Ibid., 2945.
 Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 10-13.
 The law called for a minimum penalty of 5 years in prison and fines amounting to no more than 50 million francs for all those convicted of drug trafficking and distribution. The law also allowed police forces to enter private residences without warrant if sufficient evidence of drug trafficking or distribution existed, and it also strengthened the power of the state to exile and deport suspected traffickers. See JORF 4 (Paris: 18 décembre 1970): 6704.
 Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), « Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris », juin 2009, https://www.justiceinitiative.org/uploads/80b35a11-0191-4fbe-9c85-7113437b144e/french_20090630_0.pdf
 Cited in Fabrice Olivet, Samuel Roberts, Jean-Maxence Granier, Virgil Blanc, et Marie Jauffret-Roustide, “Guerre à la drogue, guerre raciale?” Esprit 2 (Février 2017): 85-93
 As it is forbidden by law (loi 78-17) in France to collect statistics based on race, religion, or ethnicity, all quantitative data on ethnicity in France comes to us via scholarly, NGO-produced, and journalistic works. These particular statistics come from Christopher de Bellaigue, “In France Muslims Face Mass Incarceration,” Puliztercenter.org(8 April 2016), https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/france-muslims-face-mass-incarceration (accessed December 28, 2018); and “Are French Prisons ‘finishing schools’ for terrorism,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/17/are-french-prisons-finishing-schools-for-terrorism (accessed December 18, 2018). Also see Farhad Khosrokhavar, Prisons de France: Violence, radicalisation, déshumanisation…Quand surveillants et détenus parlent (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2016).