Pubdate: Thu, 11 Jul 2002
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Jon Henley


France's new government looks set to take the opposite line from
Britain on drugs, handing down stiff penalties even for casual users
of cannabis, writes Jon Henley

A couple of days before the British home secretary, David Blunkett,
announced he was reclassifying cannabis as a less dangerous drug, the
doorbell rang at Jerome Expuesto's home in Le Tour-de-Salvagny near

The gendarmes on his doorstep were there to escort the 29-year-old off
to Saint-Paul prison, where he is now serving a three-year term for
drug dealing in what many see as the latest distressing injustice in
France's increasingly aggressive war on drugs.

Jerome certainly does not fit the description of a hardened drug
dealer. He is training to be a special-needs teacher and in his spare
time looks after mentally handicapped children. But following a
tip-off, police found 75 grammes of cannabis in his bedroom at the end
of 1998.

After three days in detention, Jerome admitted that, about once a
month, he bought a 250-gramme chunk of cannabis resin for himself and
a dozen or so friends, all adults. He made no money on the deal, as
his friends and a subsequent examination of his carefully kept
accounts proved.

"He was our supplier because he was the most honest," one of his
friends said.

Sentenced to four years, including 18 months suspended, he appealed in
2000 and saw the sentence increased to three years with no remand. His
request for a presidential pardon was turned down within days of
President Jacques Chirac's re-election last month.

"It's the toughest sentence I've seen in 10 years for this sort of
offence," said his lawyer. "The problem is that the extreme common law
penalties established in French law with the Medellin cartel and its
equivalents in mind are now being applied to very ordinary young
French people."

Cannabis - rather unappetisingly known in French as shit - has always
been a touchy subject here. Surveys show 31% of French adults have
tried it at least once and 14% of 15-19 year-olds are regular users,
and yet the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, prompted howls of
media outrage during the recent presidential election campaign when he
said smoking a quiet joint was "certainly less dangerous" than having
a drink or two before sitting behind the steering wheel.

Jerome's father, Guy, who has fought a long campaign on his son's
behalf, refuses to believe the French authorities can be so
shortsighted. "Do we really have to accept that our children should be
so heavily punished when almost all the experts agree that the prison
sentence imposed is far more damaging than the cannabis itself?" he

Sadly, Jerome and France's millions of other cannabis users can hope
for little clemency from the new hardline interior minister, Nicolas
Sarkozy. Announcing a massive increase in police funding yesterday as
part of the centre-right government's much-vaunted crackdown on crime,
Mr Sarkozy insisted that drugs were the root cause of almost all
France's street crime.

"The words 'soft' and 'drugs' will always be incompatible," he said.
"There is quite simply no such thing as a 'soft drug'. We are
determined to fight against drug dealers and against drugs of whatever
kind wherever, whenever and however we can."

Several associations of cannabis users - including the Cannabis
Information and Research Collective (CIRC), which has sent postcards
to all 577 newly elected MPs pleading for a change of heart - say the
new administration shows every sign of stiffening rather than relaxing
France's drugs policies.

"This government quite plainly prefers repression to prevention," the
CIRC said in a statement. "It risks turning France's many cannabis
users into scapegoats for the country's crime and insecurity problem.
Ten years of work will go up in smoke if police again start pushing
soft-drug users underground, where no one can reach them."
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