Source: San Francisco Examiner Author: John Lichfield, London Independent Page: A-4 Contact: Pubdate: 21 Dec 1997 FRANCE WILL ALLOW CERTAIN MEDICAL USE OF MARIJUANA EXPERIMENTAL MOVE IS INITIAL STEP AT POSSIBLY EASING HARSH DRUG LAWS PARIS—The French government will approve the experimental medical use of marijuana in hospitals next year as a first tentative step toward relaxing the country's Draconian drug laws. Discussions also are to be held early next year on the abolition of prison sentences for possession of small quantities of marijuana and other 'soft' drugs - perhaps eventually leading to decriminalization of cannabis use, government officials say. Although the government has ruled out any formal change in drug laws in the near future, it is contemplating administrative changes to soften the harsh French rules. To help counter political opposition, the government has commissioned a scientific study of the relative dangers of marijuana and other illegal substances, including comparisons with legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine. "We can act . . . without waiting for a change in the law," Health Minister Bernard Kouchner told a two-day national conference on drug abuse, held at the health ministry last weekend. More than 200 doctors, drug experts, scientists, teachers and social workers recommended that the government should abolish the 1970 drug laws, which they described as "obsolete and inoperative." The conference made 15 recommendations, including the abolition of all criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. But Kouchner, who favors decriminalizing marijuana, said the government could not be sure of winning a majority for new laws in the National Assembly. Instead, he promised "coherent steps on public health grounds" within the existing law. Officials in the health ministry said last week that it would mean at least three things: - - The authorization of a limited number of hospitals next year. The drug has been found to be beneficial in the treatment, or at least to alleviate the symptoms, of cancer, glaucoma and AIDS. - - A decree to the judicial and penal authorities to ensure that prisoners addicted to hard drugs continue to receive appropriate treatment, including heroin substitutes, while in custody. - - Discussions among health, interior and justice ministries on a possible decree recommending that French courts avoid prison sentences for possession of marijuana and other 'soft' drugs. France's 1970 laws and 1995 penal codes lay down fierce penalties - up to one year in jail for smoking pot, up to 20 years for growing a plant on a windowsill. But the law sketchily is enforced. Although officials estimate that 2 million people in France use pot regularly, and up to 7 million occasionally, there are fewer than 6,000 prosecutions for marijuana possession each year. Jean-Pierre Galland, president of a marijuana pressure group called le Collectif de Information et de Recherche Cannabique, called French policy "hysterical and incoherent." His group sent a cannabis joint to each of the 577 members of the National Assembly three days before the health ministry's conference. It took 10 people four hours to roll the joints by hand.