France on Two Joints a Day

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Catherine Karnow / CORBIS

Cafe Les Deux Magots on St. Germain-des-Pres, Paris.

Two French men in their mid-20s share a laugh on a central Paris cafe terrace, where an early evening crowd has spilled out onto the sidewalk to sip drinks and puff cigarettes. But as the less wary of the chatting men notes, the tart fumes coming from smokes like his own signal that tobacco isn't the only substance being inhaled here. "This," he says, gesturing with a hashish-stuffed joint, "is becoming almost as common as this," raising a glass of red wine. "It's so banal anymore that even cops scarcely notice so long as you don't blow the smoke into their face," he says in a blasť tone. (When asked for his name, however, he snorts derisively "Tamere," the French equivalent to "Your mama.")

If the reluctance of "Tamere" to identify himself as a hash smoker casts doubt on his claims about the purported immunity of tokers, there is statistical evidence to support his contentions about how commonplace the habit now is. According to a new study by the French Observatory of Drugs and Addiction, this nation of 60 million now includes 4 million cannabis smokers, 1.2 million of whom identify themselves as "regular" inhalers (10 times or more per month), while a further 550,000 are daily users. And a whopping 12.4 million are believed to have occasionally experimented with the drug. French cannabis consumption cuts across virtually all socio-economic categories and locales, according to the study, and ranks France at the top of Europe's tokers list, alongside Spain, the U.K. and the Czech Republic.

Though it has long been an unabashedly public activity among young people and residents of the banlieue housing projects, it's also been an open secret for some time now that the hipper members of the nation's affluent business and political classes aren't averse to a discreet puff. Indeed, France's cannabis culture has become so prevalent that the use of the word petard is as likely to refer to a joint as to its more literal meaning, "firecracker." Myriad nicknames for hash and marijuana have passed into the modern lexicon, such as chichon, beuh, teuteu, matos and teuch — the latter being an approximate phonic reversal of the borrowed English word most commonly used for hashish (hint: bulls produce it).

The spread of cannabis consumption has prompted repeated debate over the past two decades on legalization — a move that would allow the state to monitor and tax a clandestine market worth an estimated $1.2 billion per year, in the same way that it regulates and taxes sales of alcohol. Average monthly budget for cannabis smokers runs from $110 to $205, with rising volumes of sales over the past decade having driven street prices per gram of hash down by 30% to $5.50, and of cannabis down by 50% to $6.85.

With taxes representing nearly 80% of the price of every packet of cigarettes sold, why doesn't France legalize marijuana to claim a similar revenue slice? Because, as with tobacco and alcohol, cannabis sales are hottest among young people, who by developing the habit earlier will find kicking it harder to do. The French study found that nearly 50% of 17-year-olds reported having smoked dope at least once in their lives; nearly one third admitted having done so in the preceding month, and 16% cited regular or daily use. Average age for first use, meanwhile, is just over 15 years. Legislators fear that legalizing a substance already popular among young people will carry a heavy future price tag, as other freely traded drugs have had. Though annual social costs linked to cannabis are currently estimated at $1.26 billion, wider use could send them rocketing closer to those attributed to alcohol — over $50 billion — and tobacco, nearly $61 billion.

All of that sounds overly sinister and heavy for "Tamere" and the half dozen or so other revelers who appear to be toking with one hand, while sipping from the other. He argues that most medical studies show cannabis to be fairly innocuous — in some cases even remedial of afflictions — and in any case, far less dangerous to health than tobacco or his glass of vino. "There's a certain degree of risk in anything you do, including eating!" he says, passing his petard to his laconic chum. "Risk and indulgence is inherent in the French way of life. It's part of our joie de vivre." Perhaps, but if the Observatory's study is accurate, the French joie is increasingly chemically assisted.