A Puff in Paris

It was Napoleon's troops who first brought it over, carting home the mysterious dried leaf called hashish from Egypt in the early 1800s. Soon, it was being sold in pharmacies across France and gaining adherents, especially among the bohemian intellectual crowd.

Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a medical doctor who was one of the first to become interested in the drug's properties, and his friend, the French philosopher and writer Théophile Gautier, even formed a famous little social club -- quite appropriately named the "Club des Hachichins," or the Hashish Club -- dedicated to the exploration of drug-induced experience.

Between 1844 and 1849, the club gathered regularly at the gothic Hôtel de Lauzun on the Île Saint-Louis, and boasted as members such Parisian littérateurs as Alexandre Dumas, Gérard de Nerval, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix and Charles Baudelaire (who lived in the club's attic for a while).

Ritualistically garbed in Arab clothing, the activities of the "Hachichins" seemed to consist mainly of drinking strong coffee liberally laced with hashish, and then talking -- and writing -- into the nights about the experience of being stoned.

"The doctor stood by a buffet ... [and] spooned a morsel of paste or greenish jam about as large as a thumb from a crystal vase ... on each saucer," wrote Gautier, describing the scene. "The doctor's face radiated enthusiasm; his eyes glittered, his purple cheeks were aglow, the veins in his temples stood out strongly, and he breathed heavily through dilated nostrils. 'This will be deducted from your share in Paradise,' he said as he handed me my portion."

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These days, the Hotel de Lauzun belongs to the government, which uses it occasionally for formal state events at which one is told not to touch the delicate antique furnishings or lean on the decoratively painted walls. The intellectual crowd has moved on to other neighborhoods to escape the ice-cream-buying tourists and the overpriced cafés, and the liberal drug laws of those heady days have changed drastically.

Indeed, today, France has some of the most conservative drugs laws in Europe. Since 1970 the law stipulates that the use of cannabis is punishable by a year in jail and up to €7,500 of fines, while cultivation, possession of large quantities and trafficking in the drug are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

In practice, the police and courts often turn a blind eye to many cases of personal use, especially in the capital, but still, some 137,000 people were arrested last year for smoking cannabis, according to Michel Henry, a journalist with Libération and the author of "Drogues : pourquoi la légalisation est inevitable."

But whether the harsh law has diminished the French penchant for cannabis is questionable.

According to the latest statistics released last week by the National Institute for Health Education and Prevention (INPES), and the Observatoire des Drogues et des Toxicomanies (OFDT), a public body that carries out studies on smoking, there are 13.4 million people in this nation of 62 million who are either regular or occasional cannabis users -- 1 million more than when the last statistics were gathered five years ago. This makes France's level of consumption among the highest in Europe -- alongside Spain, the U.K. and Germany.

Occasional users are defined in the study as those who have tried cannabis more than three times in their life: Regular users, in turn, of which there are about 1.2 million according to the report, indulge anywhere from 10 times a month to every day.

"We never stopped smoking," admits Guillaume, a middle-aged lecturer in comparative literature, at a drinks party in a sprawling apartment in the ninth district, a glass of red wine in one hand and a joint dangling in the other. "The laws changed, but not our attraction to this small delight."

While young people aged 15 to 24 are the largest consumers of cannabis, according to the statistics, usage is high across all age groups and cuts through virtually all socio-economic sectors. "There are young, disaffected people in the housing projects of the suburbs doing drugs, and there are members of the nation's intellectual, business and political classes indulging," explains Henry. "It's not a class thing."

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The incongruity between the number of French using marijuana and the strict laws against it has prompted debate over and again during the past several decades, and it has led to numerous calls for legalization.

The most recent push has come from a high-level parliamentary report released earlier this month, which concluded that it was impossible to continue "advocating the illusion of abstinence" and recommended that the drug be subject to "controlled legalization," meaning that its cultivation and sale would become a state-controlled activity, like the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

The report, which has the support of various opposition members, suggests that the state produce cannabis in sufficient quantity -- and be aware of any deficiencies in production which could create a new illegal market -- and sell it through government sanctioned shops.

"That prohibition does not solve the problem today is a fact," explained Socialist MP Daniel Vaillant, one of the instigators of the report, to Le Monde. "So let's try the challenge of regulation."

Valliant, who served as France' Interior Minister from 2000 to 2002, and who represents the 18th district of Paris, which has a huge population of cannabis users, has been proposing new cannabis legislation since 2003. And he is not the only senior politician doing so.

Bernard Kouchner, the former health minister as well as foreign minister, has been making the same arguments for years. A medical doctor and the founder of the Nobel-Peace-prize-winning aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, Kouchner is on the record as saying he has both used marijuana himself and would like to regulate its use in France.

"It would be ridiculous to close your eyes to reality," he told the press a decade ago, when he was health minister. "Tobacco is more addictive than hash. As far as I know, no one has ever died from smoking cannabis."

"We are adults," adds Guillaume. "And adults always do what they want. The law only serves to make life easier or harder."

Besides these sorts of arguments, advocates argue that legalizing cannabis would allow the state to monitor and tax a clandestine market worth an estimated €1 billion per year, in the same way that it regulates and taxes sales of alcohol.

Not everyone in convinced.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative ruling UMP party has largely rejected all calls for changing the law and argues that legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis would increase the number of users and that traffickers would move into distributing harder drugs.

Those opposed to legalization, including Apaire Etienne, President of the Interministerial Mission for the fight against drugs and drug addiction, argue that making a substance already popular among young people even more readily available will carry a heavy future price tag, as other freely traded drugs have had.

And despite the growing numbers of those attuned to the calls for change in policy, a slim majority here still tends to agree with the more conservative viewpoint. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Le Parisien last week showed that more than half of French people (58 percent) say they are opposed to the decriminalization of cannabis.

"When I was younger I used to smoke hash," admits Beatrix, a costume designer, "but we did not know the risks back then. Today we now that tar smoked cannabis is more carcinogenic than tobacco alone and clearly causes cancer ... and there that there may be some connections between high usage and psychiatric problems."

Now that she is a mother of two teenagers herself, she admits, she is not sure she wants drugs, even soft ones, made easier to obtain or more normative. "It might seem hypocritical considering that I used to indulge -- but I am a little scared. We don't know enough about what the effects are."

But sociologist Patrick Pharo, director of research at France's national center for scientific research (CNRS) and author of "Philosophie pratique de la drogue," believes that it is only a matter of time before there is growing pressure and the law does change here.

"The reason is not domestic," he explains. "It has to do with the fact that international war on drugs is now considered a resounding failure, denounced not only by most of the scientific community, but also by many former heads of state and politicians."

He compares the attitude to drugs to the attitude to homosexuality. "One day, international conventions simply turn around," he says. "And that will be that."

"Of course, the two cases are radically different," he hastens to add. "Homosexuality is something that does not hurt anyone, while drugs, illicit and licit, clearly do. They are dangerous," he stresses. "However, it is precisely because they are potentially deadly pleasures that it is important to regulate them, and not to ban them but provide objective information and attention on their real dangers."