Illicit drugs: In the name of the law

Illicit drugs: In the name of the law

11.16.2023, by
A police operation in a housing estate, known to be a “drug supermarket”, in Toulon (southeastern France) on 19 September, 2023.
After decades of repressive legislation, the way in which societies regulate the use of psychoactive substances is evolving but remains decidedly ambiguous.

Interviewed on 14 September, 2020 on the television news channel LCI concerning the possibility of legalising the use of cannabis in France, the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin left not a puff of doubt as to the government’s position: “Drugs are crap. And we won’t legalise that crap.” Shock value aside, his words have the merit of neatly summing up the country’s stance on the issue of so-called “illicit” drugs: other than a plain and simple ban, there is no plan B. For a long time, France’s prohibitionist approach to all narcotic substances (cannabis, heroin, cocaine, synthetic drugs, etc.) was the consensus around the world.

To this day, international drug-control policy continues to hold this repressive line. In terms of regulation, it is based on three treaties adopted between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, and ratified by virtually all of the 193 states recognised by the United Nations1. “Until the early 2010s, the prevailing position was to ban any non-medical use of narcotics and psychotropic products while simply exercising control over the substances in question, which themselves remained authorised,” recounts François-Xavier Dudouet, a CNRS research professor in political and moral sociology at the IRISSO2.

However, after several decades of the “war on drugs” waged by successive US administrations and their Western allies with the goal of eradicating illicit drug use, it is clear that the strategy has failed. Between the first national anti-drug campaign launched by Richard Nixon in 1971 and the end of the Reagan administration in 1989, which marked the height of the “war”, the quantity of illegal drugs entering the United States increased threefold.

An ineffectual prohibitionist policy

In France, cannabis remains by far the most widely used banned drug. Its trafficking generates an annual turnover of €1.2 billion, according to the French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT)3. The organisation estimates that it is consumed at least once a year by five million French people, including 900,000 on a daily basis.

“Even though France's criminal policy on the use and possession of cannabis is one of the most repressive in Europe, as evidenced by the 150,000 arrests on these charges made by law enforcement agencies each year, France has one of the highest consumption rates in Europe for this drug,” reports Renaud Colson, a senior lecturer on private law and criminal science at the Law and Social Change laboratory (DCS)4.

The French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin visiting a police station dedicated to the fight against drug trafficking.
The French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin visiting a police station dedicated to the fight against drug trafficking.

Faced with the failure of prohibitionist policies as a means of limiting cannabis consumption, an increasing number of countries have consented to decriminalise its use. Of the 27 states in the European Union, more than half have already chosen this option5.

The Netherlands was a pioneer of this approach where consumers are no longer liable to criminal prosecution. Since 1976 the country has tolerated cannabis purchases in its famous coffee shops, although the production and sale of this psychotropic drug are still strictly prohibited outside of these establishments, which operate under stringent government regulation.

“This legislative paradox forces most coffee shops to get supplies from organised crime groups,” Colson points out. “It has never been able to address the criminal activity associated with the cannabis trade. This is one of the reasons why the Dutch government has decided to try out a system of legally-regulated cannabis production starting in 2024.”

Legalisation to fight trafficking

Over the past decade, other countries have gone even further in liberalising the cannabis market. In December 2013 Uruguay became the first nation to legalise its “recreational” consumption, production and sale. Five years later Canada followed suit, becoming the first federal state to approve the legalisation of cannabis throughout its entire territory6.

Products based on cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical naturally present in the cannabis plant but not classified as a narcotic or psychotropic substance, are now available over the counter.
Products based on cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical naturally present in the cannabis plant but not classified as a narcotic or psychotropic substance, are now available over the counter.

Like public policies regulating tobacco, alcohol and gambling, the legalisation of an illicit drug offers governments the means for taking more effective action to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population, such as young users and addicts. In addition to taking market share away from the criminal organisations that control the illegal trade, this strategy also lessens their ability to cause harm.

In fact, all the countries that have legalised cannabis have reported a significant reduction of the black market and related criminal activity. “The countries that have legalised cannabis continue to prohibit its sale to minors, and have not seen any rise in consumption among the youngest users,” Colson adds. “On the contrary, the indicators point to a drop among that age group.”

On the other hand, as soon as the drug becomes legal, consumption tends to increase slightly among older users. But in Colson’s opinion as a drug policy expert, this is not necessarily a problem in terms of public health: “Although it is still a little early to draw definitive conclusions, this rise in consumption could reflect the use of cannabis as an alternative to other more dangerous psychotropic products, like alcohol, tranquillisers and certain synthetic opioids.”

The failure of the American control system

As evidenced by the opioid crisis that has gripped the United States since the late 1990s, the need to regulate the use of potentially addictive and dangerous substances is not limited to illicit drugs.

In recent years, the number of deaths linked to powerful prescription psychotropic drugs has risen even further since fentanyl reached the market. Developed to meet a demand for more effective painkillers, this synthetic opioid, 80 times more powerful than morphine, is decimating the American population. Today, fentanyl alone is responsible for more than 70,000 deaths per year in the United States – ten times more than the annual number of fatal heroin overdoses across the country.

A signage in Wisconsin (US), a state where the number of fentanyl-related deaths has been rising sharply.
A signage in Wisconsin (US), a state where the number of fentanyl-related deaths has been rising sharply.

“While the manufacture, import and export of synthetic opioids have been subject to international regulation since the 1930s7,  the sale of these products at the national level as well as the degree of supervision exerted by doctors and pharmacists are left up to each state,” Dudouet explains. “Therefore, the opioid crisis in the United States does not so much reflect the failure of international drug policy as that of the country’s control mechanisms.” ♦

  • 1. These include the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), ratified by 186 states, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), ratified by 184 states, and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988), ratified by 190 states.
  • 2. Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Sciences Sociales (CNRS / INRAE / Université Paris Dauphine-PSL).
  • 3.
  • 4. CNRS / Nantes Université.
  • 5. The recreational use of cannabis has been decriminalised by the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Czechia, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia and Ireland, and the drug was recently legalised in Malta and Luxembourg.
  • 6. In the US, the states of Colorado and Washington legalised cannabis in November 2012. Since then 22 other states have enacted legalisation, but cannabis remains banned at the federal level.
  • 7. Since the 1930s, various international regulatory authorities have been instituted to ensure the enforcement of the treaties intended to combat drug trafficking, the most recent being the International Narcotics Control Board, founded in 1968.
Go further


Grégory Fléchet

After first studying biology, Grégory Fléchet graduated with a master of science journalism. His areas of interest include ecology, the environment and health. From Saint-Etienne, he moved to Paris in 2007, where he now works as a freelance journalist.


0 comment
To comment on this article,
Log in, join the CNRS News community