CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of substances in the cannabis plant. CBD cannabis is said to contain only traces of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana - what gets you high.
Proponents of CBD claim it treats ailments like epilepsy and Multiple sclerosis, and provides a calming effect on those suffering from anxiety and depression.
But in France, sellers are not allowed to make such claims.
“We are not doctors, or pharmacists, so we can’t say it helps this or that problem,” says Maxime Brunet, in his shop in Caen, in northern France. He has customers who have read online that CBD could help their illnesses.
“But the problem is that in France, it’s not recognised. So we cannot say, take this or that herb,” he says. He is, however, allowed to say that CBD can be relaxing, like herbal tea.
On the glass counter in front of him is a row of jars with buds in them, labelled with names like silver bud, Swiss cheese, or tropical haze. There are signs stating that the buds are not to be smoked. Instead, there are instructions on how to brew them into tea. Though he says what his clients do with the flowers is up to them.
Brunet is careful to toe the line of French law, which prohibits even the promotion of anything having to do with marijuana. Images of cannabis leaves can get you in trouble, so the shop’s logo is a cannabis-looking leaf with five points. Real cannabis has seven.
“Our logo… is a teacup with a leaf. And it’s not a cannabis leaf,” he says. “That way it’s less explicit.”
Despite the precautions, Brunet has run into legal trouble. Along with this shop in Caen, he and his business partners – his brother and father – have three others, in Lisieux, in Nantes and in Le Mans.
In November 2018, a few weeks after the opening of the shop in Nantes, police raided it and confiscated the buds for analysis. Then, in February 2019 police raided the Le Mans store, a week after it opened.
“We open at 11am, and at 11:20 the police came in. They were in plain clothes. It was the narcotics division, followed by the police commissioner and the vice prosecutor,” recalls Brunet. They emptied the store, and loaded all the merchandise into a lorry. And then Brunet was taken into detention for questioning.
Even though he believed he had done nothing wrong, he was still worried: “It’s stressful, because you don’t really know what’s going to happen. We were sure we were following the rules. But you still end up detained with criminals,” he says.
Brunet has yet to receive a summons to court, and he reopened the store a few days later.
A grey area in the law
Brunet’s lawyer, Ingrid Metton, believes this kind of police action is a result of the law being unclear.
“French law is extremely vague about CBD, quite simply because the law was not made for this kind of business,” she says.
Hemp is legal in France if it is grown for the industrial use of its fibres. In fact, France is Europe’s largest hemp producer.
Industrial hemp has much less THC than the marijuana consumed as a drug. Legally, cannabis plants grown in France can have no more than 0.2 per cent of THC. Marijuana usually has about 14 per cent.
The CBD sold in France is not produced in France; it comes from Switzerland or other countries. Selling CBD, therefore, should be acceptable: it's not grown in France, it has less than the legal limit of THC. But in 2018 the government’s anti-drug mission, Mildeca, came down hard on CBD products, saying they should not contain any THC at all.
With the law saying one thing, and a government directive saying another, police and magistrates had to make their own decisions.
“Legal charges are determined by prosecutors, and some decide to follow the government directive, maybe because they really believe that these products are narcotics. Others say that when the law is not clear, they cannot prosecute,” explains Metton.
“For [CBD] business owners, it’s really a question of luck. And that is not normal… It is very difficult to understand how there can be such a strong difference in treatment between French jurisdictions.”
CBD in France, why now?
Paris has seen such a crackdown. CBD shops started opening at the end of 2017, following growing global trends for CBD and cannabis products. Spurred on by marijuana legalisation in some US states and Canada, entrepreneurs sensed a lucrative business opportunity. Also, in 2017, neighbouring Switzerland legalised the sale of CBD with less than one per cent of THC.
As shops opened, they attracted long lines of customers, curious about ‘legal’ marijuana on sale.
They also attracted the attention of the authorities. By the summer of 2018 they had shut down most of the Paris shops, days after the anti-drug mission published its directive.
Metton, who had previously represented patients using medical marijuana, was deluged with calls.
“The way I see it, the authorities panicked. They decided to take the time to really understand this market, and provide a legal framework. And while they were waiting, they decided to implement a massively repressive policy,” she says, adding that the decision is problematic, “because in a state of law, let’s recall that what is not formally prohibited is allowed. So I don’t understand how we can detain hundreds of people… on the basis of a law that is not clear.”
Waiting for clarity
The first case against a CBD shop in France was brought by the government against the Canavap e-cigarette shop, which opened in 2014 selling cannabis liquids made outside of France with a THC content of less than 0.2 per cent.
After media coverage of the store’s opening, the health ministry shut it down to analyse the products. Metton was called in to represent the company, and she says the analysis took a year and a half, and the case finally went to court in 2017.
The owner was sentenced to an 18-month suspended prison term, and a ten thousand euro fine. Metton appealed the verdict, and raised the issue of whether French law is in accordance with European law.
“And the judges in the appeals court of Aix-en-Provence sent the case to the European court of justice, which must now rule on whether French law is in line with European law or not,” she explains.
A ruling in that case would clarify French law, as could a decision from the top French court on any of the other cases.
Change could also come elsewhere, says Metton: “It could take the form of a law passed by parliament; it could take the form of a government regulation; it could be the executive who makes a decision that changes the law”.
Despite the uncertainty, the seizures, the detentions, Brunet is staying in the CBD business, which he says remains extremely lucrative. He sells the CBD buds between 10 and 16 euros a gramme, which he says the going price in France and about three times the street price of marijuana.
And yet, he and his family are still keeping their other business going, because laws can change overnight
“Every morning when you wake up, or when you go to bed, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” he says.
“Tomorrow they could come shut us down. Or you can see on TV that the law is passed. That would be great. We would be very happy. But it could also be the opposite. So we don’t know where it is going.”
This report was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.