While the wind of legalization has been blowing over the cannabis market in the United States, Uruguay and Canada, the (low-key) debate on the issue in France remains dominated by a prohibitionist and punitive approach. In particular, French law no. 70‑1320 of December 31, 1970, relating to health measures to combat drug addiction and the suppression of the trade and illicit use of poisonous substances, is part of a large number of predominantly punitive national laws whose problematic effects on social development, public and individual health, human rights, the economy, and the environment are well documented (Csete et al. 2016 ; Reyre et al. 2018). In addition to the negative consequences of this approach in terms of the expansion of the illicit market in drug-dealing locations—mainly areas on the outskirts of cities composed of large social-housing projects,  often referred to collectively as “les quartiers” (literally “the neighborhoods,” but implicitly “working-class neighborhoods”)—its primary objective of reducing the use of prohibited substances has singularly failed. France has been one of the leading cannabis-consuming countries in Europe for many years, both among 18- to 75-year-olds and among young people under 18 (Beck et al. 2017 ; Spilka et al. 2018).
Given this state of affairs, one might imagine that the French authorities would be amenable to implementing measures to ensure the legal regulation of the cannabis market, but there are numerous sources of opposition to this line of thinking. The moral and ideological arguments against legal changes to the trade and use of cannabis are well known : it sends the “wrong signal” to young people, it smacks of permissiveness, it could lead to the use of other, harder drugs, it could lead to an increase in criminal behavior, and so forth. There are also other—more pragmatic—arguments that have been relatively low-key in the national debate but hold considerable sway among decision-makers. Prime among these are fears concerning the impact of legalization on neighborhoods where drug dealing represents a significant part of the local economy. This would impoverish the fraction of the local population that lives off this illicit market, with potential consequences in terms of social cohesion and political stability. In addition, the populations concerned could potentially turn to other criminal trafficking activities, posing more serious threats to public order. Leaving aside the cynicism of delegating social regulation to a criminal economy, this argument must be discussed in light of our current knowledge of the cannabis market in French “quartiers” and the experiences of other countries that have relaxed their legislation.
A destabilization of the local economy in les quartiers ?
From the early 1990s onwards, general-population health surveys began to produce robust data on the number of drug users in France. They revealed that a significant proportion of the population were cannabis users—a proportion that has increased steadily ever since. Little was known about the realities of cannabis supply and distribution, however. Following some pioneering research on the subject (Fatela 1992), an organization called the CNV (Conseil National des Villes – French National Council of Cities), which was concerned by the rise of the cannabis economy in working-class neighborhoods, funded a sociological study in a number of areas of major French cities : in Hem, a suburb of Lille, in northern France ; in Argenteuil, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Aubervilliers, and Bagneux in the Paris suburbs ; and in Marseille in southern France (CNV 1994 ; Aquatias 2001). Far from confirming the notion that the cannabis trade contributes to the development of local economies, the results of the study showed that it represents only a marginal proportion of residents’ income and that it actually contributes to the impoverishment of these social-housing neighborhoods : first, through the deterioration of the local environment (vandalism, theft, appropriation of space by criminal organizations, etc.) ; and second, as a result of residents being trapped in illegal employment for meager incomes at the bottom of distribution chains.
This type of conclusion is also found in more recent studies, which make use of other methodological mechanisms that emphasize the increased professionalization of cannabis resale organizations (Ben Lakhdar 2007 ; Ben Lakhdar and Weinberger 2011, 2016). According to these studies, some 200,000 people work occasionally or full-time in the cannabis market, which has an estimated annual turnover of around €1 billion for mainland France and Corsica alone . However, a new feature is that the cannabis market is structured around organized networks that are based geographically in periurban areas, and in some cases also include the cultivation of cannabis crops. In addition, the internet represents a new distribution channel that is beginning to be used on a massive scale, whether on the dark web or via conventional commercial websites. This competitive strengthening of the market, combined with the ineffectiveness of police enforcement and the economic slump resulting from the subprime crisis, appears to have further widened the gap between the legal economy and a section of local populations in drug-dealing areas.
As the inhabitants of La Castellane, a housing project in Marseille (Duport 2016), point out, a vast majority of these populations have no desire to have anything to do with drug money, and derive their income from legal sources. Those who do come into contact with the illegal cannabis market derive very little economic benefit from it : network leaders, big importers and money-launderers become a great deal richer at the expense of the “footsoldiers” (coupeurs or “cutters,” who prepare the merchandise ; revendeurs or sellers ; surveillants or supervisors ; charbonneurs or stockkeepers, who are responsible for handing over merchandise ; chouffeurs or lookouts ; nourrices or “feeders,” who have clean criminal records and store merchandise in their homes, etc.). Moreover, these “employees” of the cannabis trade are exposed to increasing violence caused by a deregulated competitive climate (Gandhilon 2016) and maintained by France’s prohibitionist legislation.
If the cannabis economy were to be legalized, it is certain that the “big shots” would seek to minimize the financial losses that would result by developing other criminal markets. However, it is unlikely that these new markets would have the capacity to absorb the large workforce currently devoted to the cannabis trade—especially as the police, freed of the burden of cannabis-related offenses, would be able to redirect their efforts to combat other (more limited) criminal markets, and thus prevent their development, or even their emergence. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that the “footsoldiers” would have the necessary skills or indeed the desire to become involved in illicit trafficking that is riskier in terms of criminal liability and potential violence, such as dealing in heroin or weapons.
The argument that legalization would destabilize the economy of “les quartiers” therefore appears to be backed up by very little hard evidence when we rationally examine the observations available to us. But this argument can also be discussed in light of the experiences of countries that have chosen to go down the path of legally regulating the trade and use of cannabis.
What can we learn from other countries’ experiences ?
The effects of cannabis legalization are multidimensional, difficult to predict and measure, and highly dependent on the regulatory framework implemented. However, early assessments tend to show, among other things, a decrease in criminal activity, both locally (Kleiman 2016) and internationally (Gavrilova, Kamada and Zoutman 2017). To our knowledge, there has not yet been any evaluation of outcomes for former actors in the illegal market, but a number of experimental measures have sought to influence these outcomes.
In California, the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, also known as Proposition 64, was passed in November 2016 and legalized a recreational cannabis market with effect from January 1, 2018. In addition to providing a legal structure for this market by underscoring obligations and constraints in terms of supply and demand, two points of this reform—one direct, the other indirect—enable the involvement and inclusion of populations who formerly played roles in the illegal market.
The first point concerns the re‑evaluation of prison sentences and fines for those currently and previously incarcerated for acts covered by the reform. For example, Proposition 64 allows for the release from prison of individuals involved in the cannabis trade, under certain conditions, as well as the wiping of criminal records for these individuals and others who have already served their sentences. In this way, populations (mainly African-American, see Alexander 2010) that had been excluded from society because of deeds that have since become legal are being reintegrated into society. As a result of revisions to their criminal records, access to certain professions is once again possible, including jobs in the cannabis industry.
The second point stipulates that the legalization of the cannabis market is a local issue, and that it is therefore up to counties or municipalities to decide whether to open up the market—and under what conditions, particularly in terms of who is and who is not permitted to play a role in this new industry. In this respect, initiatives in Oakland and San Francisco deserve particular attention : these cities have set up “cannabis equity programs” to help women and ethnic minorities invest in the legal cannabis market.
As a result, among other things, people formerly involved in the illicit cannabis trade are now in a position to derive a legal—and often higher—income from the sale of the same substance. In the French context, however, identifying individuals who might be eligible for such programs would require a certain legal inventiveness (the conditions for wiping criminal records, for example, depend on the sentences imposed and whether not the individual reoffends ; as it stands, any request to the public prosecutor for records to be wiped may only be made within five years of completion of the sentence imposed), but the economic situation of drug-dealing areas could end up being improved, with little transfer toward other criminal trafficking.
New opportunities for political action
The arguments in favor of legalizing cannabis mainly concern public health and safety. First, a legal market would allow for better product quality control and enable consumption to be regulated in order to reduce health risks. Second, it would relieve law-enforcement bodies of an exhausting and sterile task, and allow them to focus on combating other criminal markets, thereby helping to restore the credibility and effectiveness of their action in “les quartiers” and improve links with the population (on this last point, see Mouhanna 2011).
A third category of argument consists in highlighting the potential of a legalized cannabis market by providing economic opportunities to populations previously involved illegally in the cannabis trade, as well as to others who wish to become involved. By drawing on experiences elsewhere and carefully supervising the legalization process, public action can effectively prevent the largely overestimated risk of destabilizing the economy of drug-dealing areas, in particular by creating legal jobs linked to the new cannabis market. In particular, those people brought back into a context of legality would be farther removed from criminal networks and influences (such as those present in prison or the risk of being recruited for other illegal activities). In addition, this public action could be backed up by new resources resulting from a legal cannabis market : in all American states that have chosen legal regulation, significant tax revenues have been generated and dedicated, on the one hand, to preventing and managing problematic cannabis use and, on the other, to helping populations that previously derived some sort of revenue from the illegal trade.
In France, in the event of legalization, it is estimated that tax revenues would be in the region of €1–2 billion, depending on the sale price and the taxes levied on the market (Ben Lakhdar and Kopp 2018), and it has been proposed that a portion of this revenue should be ringfenced for city policy and for education in sensitive urban areas, with the aim of reintegrating those populations living off the subsistence economy currently offered by cannabis into the legal economy (Kokoreff and Lapeyronnie 2013 ; Ben Lakhdar and Costes 2016). In this way, the local economies of French social-housing areas would certainly benefit more from the legalization of cannabis than from maintaining its current status and perpetuating the policy that governs it.
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