With French presidential elections looming in May, the politics of cannabis has made its way into the campaign. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on Tuesday caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among French conservatives when he remarked that smoking a joint at home was less dangerous than drinking and driving. The rightists' ire was not lessened despite the fact that Jospin quickly added that he would oppose any change in French cannabis laws, which, on paper at least, are among the most draconian in Europe.
"Smoking a joint at home is certainly less dangerous than drinking and driving," Jospin told Agence France-Presse in a fax interview. And, hinting at a more lenient approach to marijuana users, Jospin added that while he opposed decriminalizing cannabis, the drug laws should be applied "in an intelligent manner" toward cannabis users.
With Jospin locked in a neck-and-neck race with current President Jacques Chirac, of the conservative Rally for the Republic Party (RPR), Chirac backers jumped at the chance to criticize Jospin as soft on drugs.
"This is typical of the attitude of his government, whose ministers have sought time and time again to trivialize this issue," RPR deputy Bernard Accoyer told Reuters. "He clearly has no idea of the real damage caused by cannabis," argued Accoyer.
Jospin's foes also accuse him of pandering to pro-cannabis voters, a charge that may hold more weight. Some four million French are believed to be cannabis users. But with his remarks on the relative safety of cannabis balanced by his continuing refusal to countenance decriminalization, Jospin appears to be trying to pull a Bill Clinton on cannabis. He toked up the idea of a common sense approach to cannabis, but didn't inhale the argument that it should be decriminalized. Whether Jospin will win any cannabis votes with his "take both sides" position remains to be seen. Jospin danced a similar pirouette in 1997 after winning a parliamentary election. He suggested then that he would consider relaxing the cannabis laws, but backed off when the right squealed in protest.
Twelve candidates are running for president, but only Jospin and Chirac have a chance of winning. Two candidates, the Green Party's Noel Mamerer and Olivier Besancenot, a 27-year-old Trotskyite mailman, back the outright legalization of cannabis.
They were joined on Tuesday by Le Nouvel Observateur, a left-leaning political magazine, which said in an editorial that day that legalization of all drugs would be preferable to the status quo. "Instead of being run by gangsters, it would be in the hands of a few professionals," said the magazine.