In a controversial 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 that he suffered from temporary insanity because of 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.
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 while shouting anti-Semitic slurs, will not face trial for the crime — due to mental incapacity caused by his use of cannabis.
Traore had no history of mental illness, according to the Times of Israel, but 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.
Alarmingly, of three medical experts called to testify in the case, only one argued that use of cannabis did not nullify 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?”
A Precedent for ‘Reefer Madness’?
Does this case in fact set precedent for the 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 American one. In the United States, 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.
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.”)
Alas, if things keep going the way they are going, there will be no shortage of cases to watch. On Dec. 11, three people were killed in an attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. On Dec. 28, several people were wounded when an intruder attacked a local rabbi’s private Hanukkah party in New York’s Rockland County. This follows the October 2018 synagogue massacre that left 11 dead in Pittsburgh.
As with the endless debates over gun control in the U.S., making the issue about 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 cannabis — an herb used peacefully by millions around the world every day — can ultimately be seen as a distraction from the greater underlying problem.
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 U.S. dollars), 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.”
TELL US, do you see ongoing examples of ‘reefer madness’?