“Is the War on drugs a war on race in France?” Time to highlight a forbidden question! A national drug policy campaign from French National Harm Reduction Association (AFR) 

France, country at the forefront of the war on drugs

Since the repressive drug act was adopted in France at the end of 1970, drug offences arrests increased from; 2,000 to 3,000 in the beginning of the ‘70s to close to 210,000 in 2013. This incredible 6,000% increase in 40 years makes France one of the most repressive countries in the European Union. 87% of those arrests concern single use, mainly cannabis. A quarter of those arrests lead to penal system action. It means that drug offences – including offences on behalf of illegal use – are sentenced by the court and the sentence will be registered on a criminal record. Out of more than 50,000 sentences delivered per year, 60% concern single illegal use, mainly cannabis (31,500 sentences). 11% of those sentences for illegal use are imprisonment. In other words; at least 3,000 to 4,000 are currently incarcerated in France every year after being arrested for illegal drug use. It’s worth outlining that this figure concerns the main sentence, people may have an additional sentence for illegal drug use complementary to a main sentence for another offence; those secondary sentences are not recorded by the criminal and prison system.

Who are the victims of the war on drugs in France?

To date, France is unable to answer three simple questions regarding drug law enforcement: who is arrested? Who is sentenced? Who is incarcerated? By “who”, we mean the social profile including ethnicity. Under the French Constitution, it is strongly forbidden to make a difference between citizens according to their religion or ethnicity. The political and judicial system is supposed to be blind regarding ethnicity. This strong principle applies to drug policy as well as any other public policy.

Is France a colorblind society when talking about drugs?

There is no evidence to demonstrate that France does not in fact face the global consequences of the war on drugs widely assessed in other parts of the world. One of those consequences is that the war on drugs is targeting social and ethnic minorities – as it has been very well demonstrated in the US and UK (see Human Rights Watch, Drug Policy Alliance, Release for examples). Black people, Latinos and Asians are more frequently arrested than white people. French Harm Reduction organizations delivering low threshold services to people using drugs have known for a while that most of their Black and Arab clients are facing a discriminatory judicial treatment. But again it is against the law and the so-called “French Republic Pattern” to produce objective evidence on behalf of ethnic data.

Testimony and opening a political debate in France

Since the early ‘80s, immigration has been invested in France as a major political issue. This debate takes place in a larger European space where part of the public opinion and right to far-right parties point out migrants and ethnic minorities as responsible for unemployment and criminality. In a context where these people have been associated with a series of social misbehaviours – including involvement in the illicit drug trade – for over 35 years, (a few) policy makers and civil society organisations have now started to realise the failures of the “colourblind republican model”. Last but not least, the French Prime minister has recently used the words “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” to define the situation in some urban and suburban areas after the 7-11 January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

It is time to open the debate on drug policy as a public policy that targets mainly ethnic minorities. This is the purpose of the AFR campaign requesting testimonies from Black and Arab people arrested for drug offences. A dedicated Internet website has been set up to collect this evidence and provide resources on “war on drugs, war on race”.

It will help to bridge the gap of lacking scientific evidence that is unable to be produced. It will help as well to open a wider debate on current drug policy in France. This campaign is part of the global drug policy program of AFR.

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