Medical Cannabis in France – How Far Away Is Legalisation?

The global image of France as a relaxed, permissive nation with a love of leisure and a deep appreciation for quality wine would suggest a country with an equally laid-back attitude toward cannabis, right?

Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, recent polls suggest that the French are opening up to the idea of decriminalisation. A study published in Le Figaro last week indicated that some 56 percent of the French were against decriminalisation. By contrast, 63 percent of those surveyed in 2011 were opposed to it.

Even more French are in favor of the use of medical cannabis. An informal poll in Le Parisien last year reported that over 70 percent of respondents support it, and articles on the legalization of medical marijuana elsewhere are common in the French press.

Nevertheless, the country’s anti-cannabis laws remain some of the most stringent in the E.U., dating back to its enactment of the strict “1970 drug act,” which essentially banned the use of all drugs in France. Six years later, a group of France’s well-known intellectuals published an appeal in Libération condemning the inclusion of marijuana in the legislation.

“Cigarettes, aspirin, coffee, red wine, tranquilizers are part of our daily life,” the editorial read. “On the other hand, a simple joint can get you sent to prison or to a psychiatrist’s office.”

The editorial helped spark an ongoing debate among the French regarding the country’s drug policy. However, despite certain ministers openly favoring decriminalisation, the government at large hasn’t budged.

Even as other European countries have embraced medical marijuana, France has balked. In 2014, when it finally approved Sativex – a cannabis-based prescription mouth spray intended to ease the spasms suffered by multiple sclerosis patients – it was the 16th European country to do so.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that two years after its approval, Sativex has yet to make its debut in French pharmacies.

According to the latest reports, Almirall, the laboratory that markets Sativex in mainland Europe, and the country’s Economic Committee for Health Products (CEPS) are mired in a price war over the drug. While Almirall priced Sativex at €350 per box, 20 percent less than the average cost, CEPS offered to set the price at €60 euro. To date, Almirall and CEPS have yet to reach an agreement.

An article published last week in the magazine Sciences et Avenir, however, suggests that other factors could also be keeping Sativex off pharmacy shelves. In 2014, the French National Authority for Health (HAS) classified Sativex’s effectiveness as “weak,” compared to other MS drugs on the market. According to the magazine, such classifications factor heavily in price negotiations. For instance, if a drug is classified as “weak,” there is a far lower chance insurance companies will offset its costs.

Despite the HAS classification, French patients are still seeking it out, suggesting that Sativex does in fact significantly alleviate MS symptoms. Indeed, multiple sclerosis associations report that patients have resorted to traveling to one of the 17 European countries that currently stocks Sativex to find relief.

In the meantime, Germany just announced that the country was set to legalise medical marijuana by 2017. Until France is willing to soften its old-school drug policies, it will continue to lag behind its neighbors to the possible detriment of patients.

Erin Zaleski
Erin Zaleski is a Paris-based writer and journalist. She has contributed to Newsweek, Agence France-Presse, Eco Salon, Bustle, and Link TV's Global Pulse series, among others. She covers international news, culture, business, and travel.


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