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Reefer madness defense works in France bias attack

Posted on December 31st, 2019 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , .

Reefer MadnessIn an outrageous case in France, the admitted perpetrator in an anti-Semitic murder will not stand trial, and will be going to a drug rehab facility instead of prison—on the basis of his claim of temporary insanity due to cannabis use. French Jewish leaders are of course aghast. But the decision also sets an alarming precedent in the fight for cannabis normalization—legitimizing the dubious notion of cannabis-induced psychosis, and further entrenching the stigma.


It's certainly an irony that the once-laughable notion of reefer madness is being exploited to keep someone out of jail, but that is what we've just witnessed in a controversial case in France.

'Demon' weed provokes murder: 'experts"
The Paris Court of Appeal on Dec. 19 ruled that Kobili Traore, who admitted to murdering his elderly Orthodox Jewish neighbor Sarah Halimi in April 2017, will not face trial for the crime—due to mental incapacity caused by his use of cannabis.

Traore threw Halimi from the window of her third-story apartment after beating her and torturing her for hours. Traore, a Malian immigrant, was heard shouting "God is great!" in Arabic during the murder, and had used anti-Semitic slurs against Halimi, including calling her "Shaitan" (Satan).

Traore had no history of mental illness. A psychiatric report issued in September concluded that on the night of the murder Traore suffered an "acute delirium" after heavy cannabis use. The report said he'd been smoking 15 joints a day, causing him to believe "a demon had possessed him," and to lose control of his actions.

As Israeli website YNet reports, citing French media accounts, Traore will be sent to a drug rehabilitation facility under the ruling. He will also be barred from contacting Halimi's relatives.

Alarmingly, of three medical experts called to testify in the case, only one argued that use of cannabis did not abrogate Traore's criminal liability. And according to an account on Jewish news site The Tablet, even this dissenting "expert," Dr. Daniel Zagury, gave credence to the notion of cannabis delirium, asserting that "there is an alteration of discernment and not an abolition" from cannabis use.

French Jewish parliamentarian Meyer Habib assailed the ruling: "As a member of Parliament, I do not criticize court decisions, but as someone involved in the case from day one—I am simply shocked."

Habib also noted a double standard about cannabis use versus alcohol where criminal responsibility is concerned: "[T]his decision sends a clear message to all criminals: when one drinks and commits an offense it is aggravating circumstances, and when another partakes excessive amounts of drugs, it is a mitigating circumstance and he is not responsible for his actions."

Francis Szpiner, a lawyer for the Halimi family, made a similar point in comments to the UK's Jewish Chronicle, and warned that the case could set a dangerous precedent: "You're saying that people can walk free after carrying out criminal action just because they were allegedly not aware of the effects of drugs or other substances? Will this also apply to drunk drivers who kill children on the road?"

Precedent for 'reefer madness'? 
Does this case set precedent for the utterly dubious notion of cannabis-induced psychosis being used in criminal justice?

The good news is that the French legal system has a weaker tradition of binding precedent than the Anglo-American one. In the latter, the principle of stare decisis holds "that a question once considered by a court and answered must elicit the same response each time the same issue is brought before the courts." In France, there is more flexibility.

A Stanford Law School commentary describes the French legal system as one "without binding precedent." However, prior decisions do have some weight: "On one hand, France has a strong Roman civil law tradition, with written statutes and a distrust of judge-made law. On the other hand, case law has always existed in France, and its importance in the legal system has steadily and sharply grown since the French Revolution of 1789."

The commentary states that there is a "simultaneous acceptance and denial of case law as a legitimate and independent source of law in the French legal system." 

However, "the practice of using cases has grown since the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Now, national authorities in Europe are bound by the decisions of the ECHR."

By European Union treaty, member states are all bound by ECHR rulings. Obviously, this does not affect cases strictly internal to France, but there is still growing reliance on precedent in French cases as a result of European integration. More ominously, Euro-integration means other countries on the continent are more likely to follow precedent set in an EU member state.

The door to dystopia
As we've noted, there are numerous grim implications to the Traore case. The notion that cannabis causes violence will not only provide convenient propaganda for prohibitionists. (The Tablet's ironic headline was "Want to Keep Jews Safe? Criminalize Marijuana.") The so-called "red flag" laws now being proposed in the United States in response to the relentless mass shootings call for separating those deemed mentally unstable from their firearms—and there have even been calls for pre-emptive restraint of the "mentally ill." Will this logic also be applied to cannabis-smokers in a dystopian near-future?

Alas, if things keep going the way they are going, there will be no shortage of cases to watch. Dec. 28 saw several wounded when an intruder attacked a local rabbi's private Hanukkah party in New York's Rockland County. Dec. 11 saw three dead in an attack on a kosher market in Jersey City. This follows the October 2018 synagogue massacre that left 11 dead in Pittsburgh.

As with the endless debates over gun control in the US, making the issue cannabis use forestalls a reckoning with the tough question of why mass shootings and hate crimes are escalating worldwide at this moment. Even if we are to concede that cannabis fueled dark imaginings in Traore's mind, his particular fixation on the Jews had to come from somewhere—meaning somewhere other than cannabis.

There are political and ideological roots, especially to overtly racist attacks—whether they target Jews, or Muslims (as in the March 2019 Christchurch terror) or Latin immigrants (as the August 2019 El Paso massacre). Focusing on the instrument used in the attacks (and it was a knife, not a gun, in Rockland County) can ultimately be seen as a distraction from the greater underlying problem. This is even truer when we make the critical issue personal psychology—as if social roots were irrelevant. And truer still when the water is muddied with the wholly irrelevant factor of cannabis—an herb used peacefully by millions around the world every day.

France lifting pressure on cannabis —a little
France has traditionally had some of Europe's toughest cannabis laws, but it has started to loosen up in recent years. In 2018, a new law put an end to prison terms for personal cannabis use. President Emmanuel Macron made his pledge to reform laws on cannabis use a key campaign plank during the previous year's hard-fought electoral race.

Under current law, personal possession only results in a fine of 200 euros ($226), with the judge having broad discretion to define what constitutes personal quantities.

An official body of French economists earlier this year recommended legalization. The Council of Economic Analysis (CAE), a group tasked with advising the government on policy, found in its June report that despite hardline policies, France has Europe's highest rate of cannabis use. "The system of prohibition promoted by France over the past 50 years has been a failure," the CAE stated.

But, as French news agency AFP noted, Macron's administration flatly rejected the proposal.  Said Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne: "The position of the government is very clear: We are against legalization for recreational use."   


Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Graphic: Wikipedia

 

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