France: Possession of Small Amounts of Drugs Now Subject to Fines
On September 1, 2020, a French law giving police officers authorization to issue on-the-spot fines to those caught in possession of small amounts of certain drugs entered into force. The new measure, which was passed in 2019 by the French legislature to amend article L3421-1 of the Public Health Code, is by no means a step towards decriminalization. Indeed, using illicit drugs remains punishable by up to one year of jail time and a fine of up to 3,750 euros (about US$4,450) under article L3421-1. However, under the new provision, prosecution for drug possession may be avoided by the payment of a fine of 200 euros (about $237). This fine may be reduced to 150 euros (about $178) if it is paid within 15 days, but is increased to 450 euros (about $534) if paid after 45 days. Even if the option to be fined is chosen over a prosecution in court, however, the offense of possessing illegal drugs is still added to the offender’s criminal record.
The new measure applies to possession of no more than 50 grams of cannabis, 5 grams of cocaine, 5 pills of ecstasy or 5 grams of ecstasy powder. However, local prosecutors may lower these limits within their jurisdiction. For example, the limit for cannabis was set at 20 grams in the city of Lille, and 30 grams in the town of Créteil. Additionally, most jurisdictions have chosen to exclude heroin and cocaine entirely from this scheme.
The main goals of this measure are to ease the backlog of cases in criminal courts and simplify the work of law enforcement officers. Before being applied nationwide, the option to impose a fine instead of charging in court had been deployed experimentally in the cities of Reims, Créteil, and Rennes since June 16, 2020. Between June 16 and August 26, 545 fines were imposed in these cities, including 172 in Rennes. Of these 172 in the city of Rennes, 166 fines were for possession of cannabis, and seven were for possession of cocaine. According to the prosecutor of Rennes, 32% of the people fined had already paid their fine.
Despite having some of Europe’s strictest drug laws, France has the highest rate of cannabis consumption on the continent, and the third highest rate of cocaine use. 67,500 persons were convicted of possession of narcotics in France in 2017.