Why you should care
Because if you’re already growing it, why not make money off it?
Eric Correia — an elected representative for La Creuse, a central department of France in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region — met with a group of medical professionals to share some knowledge late last year. Correia, a member of the Socialist Party and an anesthetic nurse by trade, wanted to talk to them about medical marijuana. “Morphine is derived from opium,” he explained, “and you wouldn’t hesitate to prescribe morphine.”
He’s facing an uphill battle. French usage of marijuana is among the highest in Europe — U.N. statistics indicate that 11.1 percent of French people use it, the sixth-highest rate in the world. That’s way above the Netherlands, the famed haven of hedonism. But France’s laws are among the most draconian of any country in the region: Even though 700,000 people report consuming weed daily, that use could land them a year in jail and a fine of more than $4,500. Hemp farmers aren’t allowed to use leaves or flowers from the plant, and it’s illegal to grow any hemp plant with THC levels higher than 0.2 percent.
But that isn’t stopping Correia and others from pushing for a legal future for medical pot in France, starting with the countryside. Take Nunti-Sunya, for instance. A hemp edibles company started by surfers based in southwestern France, it works with farmers to make its products and sees education as part of its mission. And Florent Buffiere of the French chapter of NORML, the U.S.-based group that advocates for legal access to marijuana for adults, believes it’s only a matter of time before France changes.
These advocates of medical pot in France are employing multiple approaches. France produces more hemp than any other country in Europe, with nearly 50,000 acres of land devoted to the crop. Those hemp farmers wouldn’t have to stretch much to produce cannabis that could be used in medical products. So it’s an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone(d): a potential boon to the struggling farmers in this hyperrural district of La Creuse.
“In La Creuse, we already have a lot of hemp farmers, but it’s textile hemp or edible hemp,” Correia explains. “They already have everything they need to do it.”
President Emmanuel Macron, visiting the United States this week, has asked for unconventional, even extralegal, ideas to ease the economic woes of the district. In Correia’s eyes, medical pot is one that could save the government millions, open up new industrial avenues for France’s farmers and catch the country up to the rest of the Continent when it comes to medicine. Think tank Terra Nova indicates that legalizing medical marijuana would save 500 million euros per year in police expenditures, earn 1.6 billion euros in tax revenue and create jobs — maybe something on the scale of the tens of thousands created in Colorado after legalization went through.
We’re already a big hemp nation. But we’re ignoring something big.
Frédéric Gié, of hemp edibles company Nunti-Sunya
But it’s not an easy sell. Politically, France’s establishment is still largely opposed to any kind of legalization, though there was an easing of harsh fines earlier this year in an attempt to relieve the burden on overstretched police forces and courts. Sure, socialist candidate Benoît Hamon advocated legalization in last year’s presidential election, but he was knocked out in the first round of voting after garnering only 6.4 percent of the vote.
Even Buffiere of NORML says Correia’s effort will likely be a useful push to trigger working groups and more discussion, but that there are so many strands of policy associated with medical pot — the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, police, medical training — that swift change may be impossible. “The whole system has to change, the paradigm has to change,” he says, despite France’s reputation as a change-resistant bureaucracy. “Mission impossible?” NORML believes otherwise, even if it will take time.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of education,” says Frédéric Gié of Nunti-Sunya. Part of that, he jokes, is that France is so focused on wine that weed, despite its popularity, isn’t seen as adequately French. But he says even hemp farmers aren’t always very accepting of the prospect of growing medical pot. Traditional farmers, and those with power in the hemp industry, don’t want to get mixed up with discussion of drugs or THC, he explains, while younger, independent farmers are more open to it. “When we tell them you could make twice the money,” Gié says, “the organic farmers we work with say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
But it’s not that simple. To really dive into the medical marijuana industry, Correia explains, would require legalization at a federal level. What he’s hoping for now is an OK from Macron to run an experimental pilot program in La Creuse to see what the effects on industry and society might be. Industry could be the key: Both Correia and Gié mention that the real boost to legalization may come when France sees how much money it’s losing by not getting in on the medical marijuana game, something Gié compares to ignoring the birth of the internet. “We’re already a big hemp nation,” he says. “But we’re ignoring something big.”