Legal Marijuana Use in Switzerland: Cabinet Gives Okay, Next Step is Parliamentary Approval 10/7/00

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On October 2nd, the Swiss cabinet approved changes in that country's drug laws that would legalize the consumption of cannabis products. The cabinet declined to address whether growing and sales would be made legal. The Swiss executive branch will now write the revisions and submit them to parliament for approval.

The measure is expected to pass. Of the four political parties that make up the governing coalition, only the far-right Swiss People's Party opposes the measure. The rest of the coalition, from the Social Democrats on the left to the centrist Liberals and the Christian People's Party on the right, support legalization of cannabis, at least in principle. In March, both houses of parliament approved resolutions calling for legalization of cannabis.

Manuel Sager, director of communications for the Swiss embassy in Washington, told DRCNet that legalization of marijuana consumption "seems to have fairly wide acceptance."

Sager explained that when the government proposes a law, it first consults with relevant interest groups, from law enforcement to public health to reform activists. Based on the consultations, said Sager, "the government has a pretty good idea of whether a measure is acceptable."

Those consultations have already taken place, and the cabinet decision reflects the consensus developed in that process, said Sager.

The time-line, however, is unclear. According to Sager, now that the cabinet has made its decision, the Federal Office for Health will write "the message," which includes the text of the proposed changes, explains their goals, and analyzes their effects. Once "the message" has been delivered to parliament, both chambers must debate and approve the changes. If the measure passes both houses, then commences a 90-day period in which any Swiss citizen or group may attempt to begin a referendum effort to undo the parliamentary vote.

Switzerland is already in the vanguard of drug reform. Voters there approved a prescribed heroin program for addicts in 1997, and Swiss authorities had previously experimented with semi-regulated hard drug consumption in Zurich's famous Needle Park.

But the Swiss electorate could only go so far, so fast. In 1998, voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized the consumption of all drugs, hard and soft. Proponents of legalization, organized into a loose coalition called Droleg (http://www.droleg.ch), argued that the plan would eliminate the black market and serve harm reduction goals. But voters by a 3-to-1 margin instead heeded opponents' warnings that the country would become a "drug haven" and would come into conflict with international treaties.

But with hard drug legalization now off the table and with the amelioration of social problems related to the now ended Needle Park experiment, the groundwork for cannabis reform was being laid. While an official commission spent five years studying drug reform, hundreds of thousands of Swiss were establishing facts on the ground.

According to a recent report by Federal Commission for Narcotics Issues, an independent panel that advises the government, half a million people out of a population of seven million smoked marijuana at least once a month. The report concluded that marijuana smoking had gained broad acceptance "because of widespread use and a marked increase in its social status." That panel recommended legalizing possession, sale and consumption of small amounts within a regulatory framework.

In 1994, Swiss authorities reported 10 hectares of marijuana fields. By 1999 that figure was up to 250 hectares, more than four times the amount of cannabis planted for hemp production and worth an estimated $100 million. Other police estimates suggest that 85% to 95% of Swiss cannabis production is for smokeable marijuana. Under current Swiss law, any form of cannabis may be cultivated, but it may not be used as a drug.

But, as the embassy's Sager noted, "Enforcement of the laws against smoking marijuana is probably not a high priority for Swiss law enforcement officials."

If the country's 150 "hemp" shops are any indication, Sager is correct. The shops -- there were only six of them in 1994 -- sell marijuana for smoking as well as hemp products. In a transparent bid to get around the ban on cannabis consumption, the shops pack, label, and bar code the weed as "hemp tea," "dried flowers," and "potpourri." The police do not interfere.

If parliament acts as expected and legalizes pot smoking, this charade will soon come to an end.

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