Hemp and Heritage in France

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. 

Screenshot 2019-02-20 20.37.21On 5 February 2019, growers, manufacturers, and distributers of “chanvre industriel,” or hemp, from across the globe met in Paris for the “AllHemp – Congrès international du chanvre,” the first international conference of its kind held on French soil. Organized by the French hemp-growers union, InterChanvre, the conference assembled industry professionals and researchers in France, the current epicenter of European hemp cultivation, to “bring notoriety to the industry and to this virtuous plant in terms of the economy and eco-responsibility.” In 2016 just over 1,400 French farmers cultivated over half of the EU’s total hectarage of hemp, nearly 17,000 ha of 33,000 ha, which was three times the amount of hemp cultivated in the United States during the same year.[1] The French farmers and manufacturers of InterChanvre thus organized the conference both to highlight France’s domestic hemp farming and promote hemp-based products, such as building materials, plastics, textiles, cosmetics, oils, and dietary supplements, on the international market.[2]

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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.

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The Real History of France’s First Anti-Drug Law

Myth: Napoleon Bonaparte created the first anti-marijuana law in modern history during his military campaign to Egypt around 1800.

Bonaparte

Monsieur Bonaparte

For nearly a century, scholars and amateur historians have told their readers, quite incorrectly it turns out, that in October of 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte passed an official ban on hashish across Egypt after personally observing rampant use of the drug among Egyptians and his rank and file. For most historians of drugs and prohibition, the hashish ban of October 1800 marks the first anti-drug law in modern history and thus the starting point for histories of drugs and prohibition in the Western world. But in October of 1800, Napoleon was neither in Egypt nor was he the ranking General in Chief of the French Army of the Orient attempting to colonize the country.

Frustrated by his repeated setbacks in Egypt, Napoleon abandoned the Army of the Orient in August of 1799 and departed for France to begin his meteoric rise to power. Command in Egypt passed to Jean-Baptiste Kléber, one of the most celebrated generals in French history, who controlled the colony until a Kurdish student from Aleppo called Suliman El-Halebi assassinated him in June of 1800. After Kléber’s assassination, Jacques-François “Abdallah” Menou, the divisional commander of Rosetta, took over as General in Chief. When Abdallah Menou passed the hashish ban in Egypt in early October of 1800, First Consul Napoleon was nearly 3200 kilometers away in Paris fending off the famous “dagger plot” and preoccupied with a growing war in Europe against Austria and the Second Coalition. And a close reading of official correspondence between Paris and Alexandria throughout 1800 reveals that Napoleon had no involvement in or even knowledge of the hashish ban in Egypt passed by Menou in October. Why, then, has this myth of Napoleon banning hashish in Egypt appeared and reappeared as an historical fact for so long, and what has this myth hidden from us about the real historical circumstances that produced the first drug prohibition measure in modern Western history?

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