First as Tragedy, Second as Farce: The Recent Rise and Fall of CBD Cafés in France

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. There have been a lot of discussions about CBD – the non-psychoactive component of cannabis – lately. See, for example, this recent article in the New York Times. Guba points out that France’s short-lived experience with CBD cafes shows how history is continuously repeating itself, especially in terms of drug policy, and that a better understanding of how nations have dealt with intoxicants in the past could prevent the same mistakes from being made over and over again. 

In the early summer of 2018, nearly four dozen stores selling legal “cannabis light,” or products with cannabidiol (CBD), ranging from distillate cartridges and edibles to actual flower, opened across France. After the first of these stores, called Bestown, appeared in the city of Annœullin (Hauts-de-France) on 24 May, over 50 similar establishments opened their doors in Paris, Nantes, Grenoble, Marseilles, Caen, Reims, and Lyon. Pictures of lines queued around the block at the Parisian merchant “Cofyshop” made the rounds in the international press. Le Monde devoted nearly a dozen articles to its coverage of “cannabis fever” sweeping the hexagon.[1] Then on 11 June the government officially declared the stores illegal, and police swept in and barred their doors.

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A Bestown shop, which opened in Béthune, in northern France, in May 2018. From France 3.

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In August, the Bestown shop in Le Havre had to close. Transcription of note: “Following a change in legislation, we are forced to withdraw from sale our CBD products. We apologize for the inconvenience.” From ACTU France.

How these stores were able to operate for nearly three weeks in a country with the harshest anti-cannabis laws in the EU is explained by a conflict of legal interpretation. Article R. 5132-86 of the French Public Health Code stipulates that growing, transporting, selling, and using “cannabis or cannabis resin” is strictly forbidden and punishable by law. One caveat of the law, written for textile manufactures, states that “certain varieties of cannabis, whose THC content is less than 0.2%” are permissible for the production of hemp. In 2017 French hemp farmers cultivated 16,400 hectares of “chanvre industriel” for textile production, compared to 5,000 in the United States. Entrepreneurs behind the French coffee shops, however, made use of the vibrant French hemp industry’s legal caveat, imported CBD products produced in Switzerland that contained under .2% THC, and sold them in storefronts across the country. As law professor Yann Bisou argued in Le Monde, CBD is “neither forbidden nor authorized” by current French laws, thus leaving room for interpretation.

On 11 June the French government, through its interministerial drug task force MILDECA, issued its official interpretation of Article R. 5132-86. “Products, and particularly e-liquids with CBD,” they argued, “are prohibited if they contain THC regardless of the rate and if they are not obtained from authorized plants.”[2] The announcement also criminalized any advertisements that “confused CBD and cannabis,” thus promoting the illegal consumption of narcotics. Therefore, all CBD products, many of them produced in Switzerland where regulations are more permissive, are now and for the foreseeable future forbidden in French territory. Reminiscent of recent battles in France over the sale of legal and medical cannabis, and namely those involving the sale of KANAVAPE and Sativex (both cases from 2014), this latest attempt to break through prohibitions and initiate a permanent turn toward legalization yet again crashed on the shoals of farcical technicality.[3]

As Marx once said, “History repeats itself…the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” This recent 18-day foray into legal cannabis in France, much as the crowning of Napoleon III so derided by Marx, was not only farcical but also repetitious, especially if one knows the full story of France’s historical engagement with cannabis. As I detail in my forthcoming book, Empire of Illusion: The Rise and Fall of Hashish in Nineteenth Century France (McGill-Queen’s University Press), French pharmacists and physicians practicing in the middle 19th century spent decades perfecting, marketing, and competitively selling hashish-based products, ranging from edibles (called dawamesk) to distillates and tinctures. Some practitioners even heralded the intoxicant as a “wonder drug” and “heroic remedy” for the era’s deadliest diseases, including the plague, cholera, and mental illness. Two French pharmacists, Edmond De Courtive and Joseph-Bernard Gastinel, even took to the press, the lecture halls of the Collège de France, and finally the courts in 1848 to settle a dispute over a patent to a particularly potent hashish distillate, containing both CBD and THC.

However, this was a time well before scientists understood the chemical composition of cannabis, and thus had no clue about CBD, THC, or their legal distinctions. Instead, most French perceptions of the drug’s intoxicating effects flowed from the widely-held belief that hashish was a quintessentially Arabo-Muslim drug that both produced and explained the presumed irrationality, fanaticism, and violence of North African populations under French colonial control. This epistemic link between hashish intoxication and Muslim violence became engrained in popular, medical, and eventually legal thinking and praxis. Many French doctors in the middle 19th century, such as alienist Jacque-Josephs Moreau de Tours, the infamous organizer of the Clubs de Hachichins, believed that hashish caused “temporary violence to the brain” and thus served as an effective homeopathic counterpunch to mental disease. Epidemiologist Louis Aubert Roche likewise believed that hashish’s “stimulating effect” on the brain could effectively combat cholera, which he, as many physicians of his time, erroneously believed to be a disease of the central nervous systems caused by “miasma,” or bad air. When medicalized hashish proved ineffective against these and other major diseases and difficult to standardize by the 1850s, it fell into pharmaceutical disrepute. The epistemic link between hashish and Muslim violence remained, however, and became a central justification for prohibition measures taken by the Third Republic in French North Africa and by later Republics in France itself.

The tragedy of this first foray into medicalized cannabis in French history lies both in its connection to a racialized imperial imaginary and in its contemporary historiographical obscurity. Very few works by professional historians on either side of the Atlantic fully examine this early history of cannabis or the ways in which France’s colonial ventures in North Africa largely shaped the rise and fall of medicalized hashish and the creation of contemporary French drug prohibitions. Recent attempts to return cannabis-based medicines and products to the French market have been ineffective in part because of the French government’s unwillingness to work through this history of imperial tragedy and instead rely on semantic gymnastics to prop up outdated laws.

History repeats itself… the first time as tragedy the second as farce. Let’s hope for something better the next time around.

NOTES:

  1. Le Monde even produced a Vice-News-esque video on the cannabis craze: [https://www.lemonde.fr/addictions/video/2018/08/27/cannabidiol-ou-cbd-pourquoi-ce-nouveau-produit-fait-debat_5346724_1655173.html].
  2. “Cannabidiol (CBS) le point sur la législation, Publié le 11/06/2018,” [http://www.drogues.gouv.fr/actualites/cannabidiol-cbd-point-legislation].  
  3. Though approved by the French Ministry of Health in 2014, Sativex has remained out of French pharmacies due to a pricing dispute between the French government and the medicine’s creators, the British-owned GW Pharmaceuticals. Lise Loumé, “Cannabis thérapeutique: pourquoi le Sativex n’est-il toujours pas vendu en France?” Science et Avenir (Avril 5, 2016)[https://www.sciencesetavenir.fr/sante/cannabis-therapeutique-pourquoi-le-sativex-n-est-il-toujours- pas-vendu-en-france_30163].