The French health minister, Bernard Kouchner, is in favour of the partial legalisation of cannabis. He is the third member of the present French government in recent months to express a view of this kind.

Mr Kouchner said last week that the medicinal prescription of cannabis should "obviously" be legalised. The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, has already said that he favours decriminalisation. The environment minister, Dominique Voynet, has called for outright legalisation of the drug.

The issue will be one of several drug-related questions to be studied in depth at a conference at the health ministry in Paris next Friday and Saturday. The conference brings together politicians, civil servants, doctors and drugs experts, who will make cautious recommendations to Mr Kouchner.

French officials say that the meeting is not likely to push for an immediate change in the repressive 1970 drug law. But it may call on the government to encourage a public debate on the subject to allow new legislation to be developed before the next presidential and general elections in 2002.

During his successful election campaign in May, Mr Jospin said he believed the use of cannabis should be decriminalised. He has not spoken on the subject since. The environment minister, Ms Voynet, who is herself a doctor, caused a public row in September by admitting to smoking cannabis.

Pressed by a magazine interviewer to say whether she has continued to smoke joints since she became a minister, Ms Voynet, leader of the main French green party, replied: "Merde!" (Shit!). She went on to say she regarded cannabis as less dangerous than sleeping tablets and that she favoured legalisation of the drug "both as a doctor and as a politician".

Mr Kouchner was much more guarded. "Obviously, it should be possible to prescribe [cannabis]," he said. "For a doctor that could be a real benefit."

In 1995, a committee of investigation appointed by the centre-right government of Edouard Balladur, voted narrowly in favour of the de-criminalisation of a number of soft drugs, including cannabis. Overall, there appears to be a cautious body of opinion forming in the Socialist-led French government in favour of a relaxation of drug laws. The one powerful figure who is said to be virulently against such a step is the employment minister, and de facto deputy prime minister, Martine Aubry. Her political base is in Lille, in northern France, which has one of the most serious heroin problems of any French city. Ms Aubry is said to blame the problem on the proximity of the Netherlands with its relatively relaxed drugs laws.

But both Mr Kouchner and Mr Jospin - whatever their personal views - are reluctant to get "too far ahead of the music", according to the newspaper Liberation. In other words, they want to prepare public opinion in France and proceed broadly in line with legal developments in other EU countries.

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