A teenager smoking a joint during a demonstration for legalizing cannabis, Paris, 3 May 2003. (EPA/Olivier Hoslet)

By Alec Fullerton

At the age of 16, I headed off on a typical student exchange with a French school. Despite the old-fashioned teaching style and the amusingly novel sight of a teacher smoking a clope out the window mid-class, the most striking difference between British and French schools confronted me before I even crossed the threshold.

As soon as I got off the bus, I was submerged in a micro-climate of nicotine-laced smog. In contrast to British schools, where smoking has plummeted in popularity and is largely frowned upon, in France it’s far more common among students.

Gauloises Bleues of varying lengths stretched left and right. As I walked a bit further from the school gates, my nostrils were hit by a cheesier waft — the smell of a pétard, French slang for a joint.

Now France’s capital region is caught up in a struggle with political overtones over how best to discourage high school students from smoking pot.

Starting this fall, the centre-right head of the Île de France region plans to offer kits to schools so that they can test students’ saliva to determine if they have smoked cannabis. But the region’s prefect, representing the central state, says the region is overstepping its powers and is at odds with national rules governing health and education.

Should schools even be testing students for drugs?

The battle reflects contrasting approaches to combating rising drug use and dropout rates, and comes eight months before France’s presidential election, in which law-and-order candidates on the right hope to drive Socialist President François Hollande from office.

I see practical and moral problems with the initiative.

From a practical standpoint, it’s doubtful such a heavy-handed system would achieve any real results. Given the lack of serious consequences for a positive test other than a stern, parental telling-off, I doubt the prospect of saliva testing would put anyone off.

If the tests are announced in advance, all students would have to do is to abstain for a day or two before the tests and then return straight away to smoking cannabis.

Why all this brouhaha over relatively risk-free drugs like cannabis, when authorities should be worried about harder and more dangerous substances such as ecstasy and cocaine?

Most importantly, should schools even be testing students for drugs? Are schools the police? Do schools have any business telling students what they can or can’t do?

Young people should be left to take their own decisions. And cannabis testing would be a blatant restriction on students’ individual freedom.

The priority has to be on safety.

A far better approach to addressing the problem would be to improve education. I’m not suggesting a return to authoritarian, scare-mongering education epitomized by hilariously naff 1970s drug warning videos.

The reality is that many young people want to experiment with drugs during their youth. The best approach is to present young adults with the facts and risks, from an unbiased, informative perspective, rather than bombarding them with over-bearing advice, which is effectively just a poorly disguised way of saying: “Don’t do drugs.”

As part of the educational campaign, I would advocate teaching teens how to take drugs safely, not in a way that glamorizes their use but to reduce the risk of overdose or bad experiences. Rather than trying to eliminate drug use, which almost always produces the opposite effect, the priority has to be on safety.

The same argument holds for legalizing prostitution. Instead of arguing over whether or not prostitution should exist, we need to prioritize the safety of those most at risk. Because of a lack of clear information and trustworthy advice, many young people are unaware of how to remain safe if they choose to use drugs.

The Île de France region’s plan to implement drug testing in schools is a naive, misguided and potentially disastrous attempt to tackle the problem. The move would infringe on young peoples’ personal freedoms.

For a country whose motto begins with the word ‘liberté‘, that is worrying.

(The views are the author’s.)

afullerton (288x355)Alec Fullerton is in his third year at Oxford University, studying French. He decided to focus on French after taking part in a school exchange with a high school in southwest France. He is aspiring journalist and has written for student newspapers and online publications in Britain, including The Spectator and Spiked-Online. This year he will be living in Nîmes and working as an English language teaching assistant in a lycée.

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