In recent years, France has come closer to ending its national ban on cannabis, which has been in place since 1970.
The rise of “CBD cafes,” a growing public demanding an end to drug prohibition, and an ongoing medical marijuana pilot program indicate that, in the near future, France, the top cannabis-consuming member state of the European Union, can legalize cannabis.
But as a student of the centuries-old links between cannabis and colonialism, I know that the movement to legalize the drug has largely ignored the groups most affected by France’s historic war on drugs, which, like in the US religious minorities.
France’s hidden war on drugs
Evidence suggests that cannabis prohibition over the last 50 years has disproportionately punished France’s Muslim minority.
About a fifth of current French prisoners were convicted of drug offenses, according to the French Justice Ministry, a rate comparable to that in the United States. Almost all of them are men.
There is no demographic breakdown of this population, because the French creed of “absolute equality” among citizens has made it illegal since 1978 to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, or religion. But sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, who studies France’s prison system, found that about half of the 69,000 people jailed in France today are Muslims of Arab descent.
Muslims make up just 9% of France’s 67 million people.
According to a January 2018 study commissioned by the French National Assembly, of the 117,421 drug arrests in France in 2010, 86% involved cannabis. Cannabis arrests are also rising rapidly. The same study reported that the number of people arrested annually for “simple use” of cannabis in France increased tenfold between 2000 and 2015, from 14,501 to 139,683.
Taken together, this and other data suggest that as many as 1 in 6 prisoners in France today may be an Arab Muslim who used, possessed, or sold cannabis.
The disproportionate impact of French drug laws on Muslim men is not surprising considering that the French have long associated Muslims with cannabis, specifically hashish, a cannabis resin.
As I argue in my book, “Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in 19th-Century France,” the 19th-century French believed that this mild drug caused insanity, violence, and criminality among Muslims in North Africa.
Writing in the early 19th century, the famous French scholar Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy popularized the idea that the word “murderer” was derived from the Arabic word “hashish” and that both originated with a Muslim sect called the Assassins of Alamut. , which operated during the Crusades.
First described in the 1300 Italian travelogue “The Travels of Marco Polo”, the Assassins of Alamut were rumored to use an “intoxicating potion” to trick devotees in Iraq and Syria into becoming assassins. Sacy believed that the potion was made from hashish, citing contemporary Arabic references to the sect as “al-Hashishiyya” or “hashish eaters”.
These assassins, Sacy argued, “were bred specifically to kill” by their leader, known as the Old Man of the Mountain. They were fed hashish to ensure “absolute resignation to the will of their leader.”
Although largely a fiction, Sacy’s claims about cannabis-eating Muslim killers gained traction in France, particularly in medicine.
In the mid-19th century, dozens of doctors cited Sacy’s work in their research. They believed that Western pharmaceutical science could “tame” hashish for use by doctors to treat diseases such as madness, plague, and cholera.
Medicinal hashish, mainly in the form of a tincture, flourished in France during the 1830s and 1840s.
But the French soon became disillusioned with their wonder drug. Cannabis, we now know, alleviates the symptoms of some diseases, but it did not cure cholera, one of the most feared diseases of the 19th century.
As failed treatments increased and many of the medical philosophies underpinning the use of hashish became obsolete in France in the late 19th century, its use as a medicine largely ended. In 1953, France made medicinal hashish illegal.
The colonial craze of refrigerators
However, the link between hashish and violent Muslims was ingrained in the national consciousness. And it influenced French public policy for decades.
Officials and doctors in French colonial Algeria, who viewed hashish use as a cause of insanity and violent criminality, packed Algerian psychiatric hospitals with local Muslims allegedly suffering from “folie haschischique”, basically “marijuana madness”.
Such thinking also helped justify the creation of the Code de l’Indigènat in 1875, a French law that institutionalized racism and apartheid in French North Africa by officially designating Muslims as subjects rather than citizens.
In the name of promoting the “colonial order,” France established separate and unequal legal codes that promoted segregation, forced labor, and restrictions on the civil rights of Muslims and other Africans.
The stigmatizing association between Muslims, hashish and crime persisted after the end of the French Empire in 1968. It accompanied North Africans who emigrated to France, who were believed to be prone to violence and crime and, as such, subject to government surveillance , interrogations and excessive police force.
French parliamentarians seeking to criminalize cannabis in the late 1960s adopted these discriminatory views.
They described the nation’s growing drug problem as a “foreign plague” spread by Arab drug traffickers. A member of the French National Assembly even quoted Sacy, reminding fellow lawmakers of his that cannabis allegedly once inspired a cult of Muslim assassins called “Hachichins.”
French lawmakers today probably wouldn’t use such discredited research or stigmatizing language to connect Muslims to cannabis. But the number of Muslims jailed for drug-related offenses suggests that this historical racism is alive and well in France.
If France takes steps to regulate legal cannabis, many doctors, marijuana smokers, and libertarian economists will surely rejoice. But it may be French Muslims who benefit most.
This is an updated version of an article that was published on August 7, 2019.