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La Droit de la Drogue: Hachichins, Orientalist Imaginings, and Fears of Foreign Drug Use

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: After bringing Points readers a fantastic write-up of the event itself, Dr. David A. Guba Jr. (Bard Early College, Baltimore) now presents a blog post on the research he presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, held from April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. In it, Guba explains how, in the wake of the 1968 social uprisings, Orientalist fears and a longing for isolationism worked their way into France’s new drug policy. Enjoy!

On 17 October 1968, the French National Assembly met to discuss the nation’s efforts to combat international drug trafficking and the urgent need to enact new laws within France to address a recent surge in drug-related arrests among university-age youths. Alarmed by the student rebellions of May and June, politicians across the ideological spectrum moved to strengthen the nation’s commitment to the U.N. Single Convention of 1961, and many believed that in such a time of crisis, the French government should go beyond the Convention’s protocols and harden its own legal system against the growing scourge of drug use among the nation’s rebellious youth. After a series of discussions lasting until December of 1970, the Assembly passed the Droit de la Drogue, then the most comprehensive legal measure taken in modern France against the traffic, sale, and use of illicit substances and the basis of French drug laws today.

During the debates leading up to the passing of the 1970 Drug Law, French politicians and consulting medical, public health, and legal professionals described the nation’s social unrest and drug problems as a single, foreign-born “plague,” spread to France by Arab drug traffickers and provocateurs set on undermining the health and moral constitution of the body politic. In his address to the Assembly at the first open debate in October 1969, Gaullist Pierre Mazeaud, a French jurist and professor of law, urged the French government to do all it could to catch and expel “undesirable foreigners” engaged in drug smuggling, including “hippies” and “persons who travel excessively to the Middle or Far Orient.”(1) Daniel Benoist, a socialist deputy in the Assembly, echoed Mazeud, arguing that the student rebellions and the rise in drug-related arrests both stemmed from “the introduction of foreign elements into our country that brought with them radical philosophies and at the same time drugs.”(2) These alien ideas and drugs, Benoist concluded, had duped France’s youth with promises of “artificial paradise” and thus caused the current state of crisis in French society.(3) Driving the point home, fellow socialist deputy René Chazelle reminded the Assembly that the word “assassin” shared an etymology with word “hashish,” both deriving from the name of an ancient cult of cannabis-smoking murderers in the Islamic world, the Hachichins. Pointing to the recent student rebellion and spike in drug-related arrests (and especially hashish-related arrests), Chazelle warned his audience: “This filiation of drugs and crime is not simply assonance, it is today a reality.”


“Le Club des Hachichins de Paris,” from A Nous Paris

Throughout these discussions on the 1970 Drug Law, Chazelle, Mazeud, Benoist, and numerous others within the French National Assembly drew from a centuries’-old “Orientalist” motif firmly embedded in France’s imperial past to make sense of domestic youth rebellion and drug use in the late 1960s. And in December of 1970, the French Assembly concretized this Orientalist imagining of the nation’s drug and youth problems in French legal codes. The final version of the Droit de la Drogue, officially known as Public Health Article L. 627, hardened penalties and lengthened jail time for drug trafficking and gave police forces unprecedented power to suspend basic civil liberties in the pursuit of suspected traffickers and distributors. Under the same law, those convicted of drug possession or public intoxication were deemed victims of addiction and required to undergo rehabilitation treatment supervised by state-regulated medical institutions or suffer criminal prosecution. In short, the law vilified drug traffickers (depicted as hashish-pushing Arab assassins) and victimized drug users (deemed passive addicts in need of state-supervised medical treatment).

As the current French government and its president, Emmanuel Macron, move to reform France’s drug laws to address a recent upswing in cannabis-related arrests and sustained calls for decriminalization, there is no better time than now to explore the largely untold history of cannabis use and prohibition in the French imperial nation-state.(4)  Though contemporary debates on France’s drug problem are less rife with Orientalist rhetoric than those of the late 1960s, the government’s refusal to dismantle fully the foundation of the 1970 Droit de la Drogue begs the question: why, so many years after the formal dissolution of the French Empire, is France working to maintain a law embedded in their checkered, imperial past?  Moreover—and of more interest to historians of France and of the expanding sub-field, “drugs and empires”—how did the “Orientalist” imagining of the Hachichins come to form the foundation of medical and legal discourse on drug use and prohibition in France in the first place?

To begin answering these and related questions, this dissertation explores the imperial history of cannabis in France from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, where the French first encountered hashish, through the passing of the first laws against cannabis use in France in 1908. Recent studies published on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to shed light on the murky history of drug use and prohibition in modern France. But much of this work arguably confines this emerging history within a nation-centered narrative that marginalizes cannabis and ignores broader themes of Orientalism and empire. And there is dominant tendency in this literature to narrowly focus on opium use and opiate control around the World Wars and thus to reduce a much longer story to legislation produced during momentary periods of heightened nationalism. Moreover, by defining French drug control policies in decidedly national terms, much of this work ignores the imperial origins of drugs in France and thus fails to account for the lasting influence of empire on contemporary French efforts to contain and penalize drug use.

Screenshot 2018-06-27 15.06.45

David Guba presents his work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

By exploring the history of cannabis in the French Empire, this dissertation builds on recent scholarly efforts to investigate the intersections of France’s national and imperial pasts. As scholar Gary Wilder argued in his seminal work, The French Imperial Nation-State (2005), “French historiography is traditionally guided by a national paradigm for which a correspondence between territory, population, and state is considered normal and the existence of colonies is treated as exceptional.” This fabricated barrier between France’s national and imperial pasts, he argues, conceals the reality that “the metropole and its overseas colonies exercised a reciprocal influence upon one another” and that both should be studied as one political and cultural unit, as what he terms the “imperial nation-state.”(5) As this dissertation hopes to demonstrate, the history of drug use and prohibition in France is in large part a story of movement between colony and metropole. From the nation’s first imperial encounter with hashish during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 through the subsequent spread of cannabis use in the French metropole during the 19th century to the creation of anti-cannabis laws in France and its colonies during the fin de siècle, the circulation of cannabis and ideas about cannabis use between colony and metropole drove the development of prohibition policies in France from the birth of the republic through the early 20th century.


1.) JORF 63 (Vendredi 24 Octobre 1969): 2935. Note: all translations from the French, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.

2.) JORF 63 (Vendredi 24 Octobre 1969): 2944.

3.)  JORF 63 (Vendredi 24 Octobre 1969): 2945.

4.) According to a 2011 study conducted by the Observatoire Français des Drogues et des Toxicomaines (OFDT), a publically funded interest group that “seeks to provide information on drugs and drug addiction to public authorities,” France is one of Europe’s largest cannabis consumers, containing some 1.2 million regular users (defined as consuming more than 10 time per month) and 3.9 million occasional users (once a year). And according to the Ministry of the Interior, France prosecuted 142,000 cases involving cannabis use and trafficking in 2010 alone, a three-fold increase from 2005. While President Macron indicated during the campaign that he’d decriminalize marijuana use, his administration has been slow to offer any substantial changes to French laws. And proposed changes (decriminalization of possession) do little to dismantle severe restrictions for production and distribution. See Mickael Deneux, “La legalization du cannabis peut faire augmenter la consummation,” Le Figaro (6 octobre 2017); Vincent Coquaz, “On a (enfin) compris ce que veut Emmanuel Macron sur le cannabis,” Liberation (21 fevrier 2017); Francois Beguin, “Cannabis: un debat de champagne inedit,” Le Monde (4 avril 2017).

5.) Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State, 3.



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