In the U.S., it’s an all-too-familiar story that Black and Mexican folks have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, but in France, they have a similar issue with the impact cannabis laws have on Muslims.
France, like many other countries around the world, are finally flirting with the idea of ending prohibition. They have CBD cafes now, which are gaining popularity, and the European Union is slowly starting to change the tune about how they treat cannabis. But like in many other spots, it is the marginalized folks who have been impacted the most.
New research shows that the past 50 years have been rough for Muslims when it comes to the War on Drugs. Close to one-fifth of prisoners in the French prison system currently were arrested for drug offenses, and most of them are men. It is hard to gain specific demographics in France because their “absolute equality” law makes it illegal to collect data based on race, ethnicity, or religion.
However, sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar studies the French prison system and found that half the people incarcerated today in France are either of Muslim or Arab descent. This means that half of the 69,000 people who are incarcerated are Muslim or Arab, although those demographics only make up 9% of the 67 million people in France.
Another study from 2018 commissioned by the French National Assembly shows that when looking at the 117,420 of the arrests in 2010, 86% of them were over cannabis charges, and the amount of people arrested for cannabis use between 2000 and 2015 rose from 14,501 to 139,683. When all these studies are compared, it paints a clear picture of Muslim and Arab folks being arrested for cannabis at a disproportionate rate.
Much like how America demonized cannabis by equating it to a poison pedaled by Mexican drug cartels and Black criminals—a largely false and inflated narrative—French historians have done something similar with Muslims. French fiction talked of Muslim “hashish-eating assassins” who were deranged, violent, and dangerous. French researchers also grew tired of working with cannabis when it was clear it was not a cure for cholera. The combined lack of medical interest and racist propaganda led to a distrust of cannabis throughout the culture. In 1953, medical hashish became illegal.
They even have their own version of reefer madness: “folie haschischique.” French colonialists in Algeria claimed that hashish caused insanity and violent criminal behavior, often putting sober or self-medicating mentally ill folks into psychiatric care and claiming cannabis was the cause.
In 1968, again mirroring events in the U.S., there were racial tensions against the North Africans who emigrated to France, claiming they were prone to violence and criminality due to the use of cannabis in their culture. This led to even harsher criminalization of the plant. The drug problem in France was referred to as a “foreign plague” and blamed on Arab and Muslim drug traffickers, people of color, and immigrants. There was talk of a cult of Muslim murderers inspired by cannabis and known as the “Hachichins.”
Today, of course, France is making a stand against such racist phrasing and thought, but it is still inherently a part of their culture when it comes to the backlash against cannabis, and it clearly shows in the numbers when prison data is pulled. Like many other places in the world, France has a lot of work to do when it comes to separating out what truly needs to be regulated about cannabis and what just comes from a history of racist propaganda.
Addison Herron-Wheeler is co-publisher and owner of OUT FRONT Magazine, and web editor of New Noise Magazine. She covers cannabis and heavy metal, and is author of Wicked Woman: Women in Metal from the 1960s to Now and Respirator, a collection of short stories.