Discussions are also to be held early next year on the abolition of prison sentences for possession of small quantities of cannabis and other soft drugs. Depending on public reaction, this could lead towards a broader de-criminalisation of cannabis use.
Although Lionel Jospin's government has ruled out any formal change in drugs laws in the near future, it is expected to use its discretionary powers to alter the repressive French legal landscape. To help to massage public fears, and counter political opposition, the government has commissioned a study of the relative dangers of cannabis and other illegal substances, when compared to legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine.
"We can act ... without waiting for a change in the law," Bernard Kouchner, the Health Minister, told a two-day national conference on drug abuse held at the health ministry last weekend. More than 200 doctors, drugs experts, scientists, teachers and social workers recommended that the 1970 drugs law, which they described as "obsolete and inoperative" be abolished. The conference made 15 recommendations, including the abolition of all criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.
But Mr Kouchner, who is personally in favour of decriminalising at least cannabis, made it clear that there would be no new legislation in the near future. He said that public opinion in France was not yet ready for dramatic change and the Jospin 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.
The precise meaning of this promise remains somewhat unclear, perhaps deliberately so. But officials in the health ministry said last week that it would mean at least three things.
One, the authorisation of experiments with cannabis use in a limited number of hospitals next year. The drug has been found to be beneficial in the treatment - or at least the alleviation of symptoms - in cases of cancer, glaucoma and terminal Aids.
Two, a circular or 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.
Three, discussions between ministries - health, interior and justice - on a possible decree or circular recommending the French courts to avoid prison sentences for possession of cannabis and other soft drugs. This could be a first step towards another decree or circular recommending police and public prosecutors to bring no more charges for possession of small quantities of cannabis.
Such decrees would, in effect, bring the formal, legal situation closer in line with reality. The 1970 law and 1995 penal code lay down fierce penalties - up to one year in jail for smoking cannabis, up to 20 years for growing a plant on your windowsill. But the law is sketchily enforced: at most, possession results in a small fine. It is estimated that 2 million people in France use cannabis regularly and up to 7 million occasionally, but there are fewer than 6,000 prosecutions for cannabis possession each year.
Mr Kouchner's caution reflects a deep division on the issue within the Socialist-Communist-Green coalition which has been ruling France since June. Mr Jospin, the Prime Minister, said during the election campaign in May that he would, if elected, consider decriminalisation. Dominique Voynet, the Environmment Minister and leader of the main French Green party, has called for outright legalisation of cannabis, and Elisabeth Guigou, the Justice Minister, is also broadly in favour of a change in the drugs law.
On the other hand, three of the most influential ministers - Martine Aubry, the Employment Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the Interior Minister and Claude Allegre the Education Minister, - are opposed to any change, whether for cannabis or any other drug. Apart from their personal convictions, they argue that a move to relax the law would be an electoral gift to the centre-right and the far-right National Front. The centre- right President, Jacques Chirac, is also fiercely opposed to any tampering with the 1970 drugs law.
Jean-Pierre Galland, president of the cannabis pressure group, le Collectif d'Information et de Recherche Cannabique, said policy towards the drug in France was "hysterical and incoherent". It was his group which sent a joint to each of the 577 members of the National Assembly three days before the conference. It took 10 people four hours to roll the joints by hand.
Mr Galland said that the government did not have the courage to change the law, but it was becoming impossible to enforce it. He predicted a compromise within the next couple of next years which did not offend public opinion but which, in effect, decriminalised possession of small quantities. "I don't see any other way, as the current law is unworkable."
Additional reporting by Lucy ReidReuse content