Hollande's choice as Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, is a declared opponent to any reform on cannabis. During the election campaign, Hollande already opposed the proposal to convert the criminal offence of cannabis use into misdemeanour, put forward by his security adviser and mayor of Dijon, François Rebsamen. Hollande did not want to "give any signal foregoing a deterrent against the use of cannabis."
Hollande's comment begs the question, "what deterrent?" The president has presumably heard of something called "data." What do available data suggest about France's current marijuana policy?
The data suggest it is a failure. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), France's adults (age 15-64) in their most recent national survey had a 4.8% past-month cannabis use prevalence, compared with 3.3% under the Dutch "coffee shop" tolerance system and 2.4% under Portugal's far reaching decriminalization. Young adults in France (15-34) reported 9.8% past-month prevalence, compared with 5.6% and 4.5% in the Netherlands and Portugal. Among youth aged 15-24, France boasts a 12.7% past-month cannabis use rate, vs. 5.3% and 4.1% in the Netherlands and Portugal. These numbers go back to 2005 and 2007, but things are similar enough today to make the point. As the World Health Organization concluded in a 2008 global study, harsh drug laws do not correlate simply with drug use rates.
Hollande's opposition to drug policy reform comes at a time of deep economic crisis, with Hollande personally under significant pressure to scale back his opposition to the unpopular austerity measures he campaigned against, in order to be able to work with countries like Germany to save the Eurozone. But marijuana enforcement, while providing some jobs for French police officers, mostly forces more austerity on the rest of the country. According to Blickman, the unsuccessful candidate for Hollande's interior minister pick, François Rebsamen, pointed out, "There are 142,000 cannabis procedures per year, corresponding to hundreds of thousands of hours of work for the police producing only 24,000 prosecutions." Paris University economist Pierre Kopp has found that "The state could save about €300 million on spending arising out of [marijuana] arrests, or perhaps even more if you include the cost of custody, the running of courts and the enforcement of sentences. The state would also receive duty worth about €1 billion."
Hollande's sorry start on the issue provides a useful reminder that reformers need to exert pressure on politicians of all stripes to hold them to account. It's generally believed that left-leaning politicos are better on issues like drug policy than their opponents, and that's true more often than not. Factions within Hollande's Socialist Party have even done some work advocating liberalized approaches to marijuana and other drugs. Nevertheless, drugs and crime are often the "throwaway" issues of choice for leftist politicians looking for ways to woo some right-leaning voters their way, especially prominent politicians. It's important to note that Hollande has not just rejected a Netherlands-style coffee shop system, nor even just decriminalization for users. Hollande has even opposed changing marijuana possession to a misdemeanor. That is a fairly extremely position, in principle, current policies notwithstanding.
So instead of siding with science and data and common sense, nor even with needed budget relief for his countrymen, France's new president has instead picked the meanest and stupidest marijuana policy he realistically could have. He should be called out for it.