In what would have been considered a surprise move up until recent weeks, the Swiss House of Representatives refused to pass a government-sponsored drug bill that would have legalized marijuana consumption and sales and set up a permanent framework for legally prescribed heroin. On September 25, the Swiss parliament's lower house voted 96-89 to take no action on the bill after an emotional debate.
The bill will now go back to parliament's upper chamber, the Council of State, which approved it in December 2001 (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/177/swissdecrim.shtml). The Council of State can revise the bill or simply send it back to the House for reconsideration in a future session -- after the pending elections, which some blame for making it more difficult to pass the bill.
Under parliamentary systems of government, the governing party or coalition by definition controls a parliamentary majority, so the bill introduced at the behest of the government was expected to pass. But in recent weeks, opponents of the legislation, aided by sensational stories in the Swiss media about marijuana's dangers, raised a storm of criticism. Lawmakers from the conservative opposition Swiss People's Party teamed up with representatives from French-speaking sections of the country -- traditionally more hard-line on drug policy and other social issues -- to craft a majority against the bill.
Luzi Stamm, a Swiss People's Party parliamentarian, told Swiss Radio International that even if the bill were to pass, he would demand a national plebiscite on it. "This is an exception to most issues that come before parliament," he said. "It's a situation in which the population can judge better than most politicians." Stamm also raised two concerns commonly cited by opponents. "The question of how to prevent children getting their hands on cannabis remains unanswered for me," he said. "And obviously there are international implications: people will come to Switzerland simply to buy cannabis here and then export it," he claimed.
In voting against the bill, Swiss lawmakers ignored Swiss social realities and common practices. According to the Swiss health ministry, about 500,000 out of the country's population of seven million are occasional soft drug users. Similarly, marijuana is sold openly in many Swiss cantons, although not officially. Instead, stores sell "hemp potpourri," or bags filled with buds, in the open fiction that people will smell the buds not smoke them.
Supporters of cannabis legalization argued in vain for a policy based on public health, not moral concerns. "Bans on cannabis and alcohol have always proved a failure," Health Minister Pascal Couchepin said in an impassioned speech to parliament. Legalization would end black market profits, he added.
In an interview with Swiss Radio International, Michael Graf, deputy director of the Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction, expressed disappointment and frustration with the vote. "I am disappointed by this lack of political courage. It shows that politicians are not comfortable with the issue of public health," Graf said. "They're mixing up moral values with the interests of public health, both of which they have to defend. This means that cannabis users will basically still be considered as criminals, whereas we see them as people who are at risk -- especially if they are young."
Graf also cited scare stories in the media. "Anything that anyone's said during the past months on cannabis has been heavily banded about by the media," he complained. "For instance, it was said that a joint was up to five times as toxic as a cigarette -- a claim which was never backed up by the scientific community. There then were some psychiatrists who said cannabis caused mental disorders among teenagers. But they forgot to say that this applied only to a minority of them," Graf continued. "The majority of occasional smokers never have a problem, and this is true for a lot of teenagers and young adults. But people mix up occasional and regular use, which of course is dangerous -- irrespective of age."
But while most attention has focused on marijuana legalization, the blocked bill would also have provided a legal basis for Switzerland's successful prescription heroin program. In place since 1994, the program currently allows about 1,300 heroin users to shoot up at approved locations with government-provided heroin. That program was re-approved by parliament in March (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/277/swissheroin.shtml), and will continue until at least 2009 no matter what parliament does. But parliament's failure to act on the bill means the program lacks a permanent legal basis.
The health ministry and the Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse will continue to lobby for the bill's passage, Graf told Swiss Radio International. "Of course!" he exclaimed in response to the query. "We were the first to do so and we'll carry on informing people in the most objective manner possible. Opponents of cannabis reform play on fears and prefer to bury their heads in the sand," he said. "But they have to realize that just because the debate is dragging doesn't mean that the situation will disappear. Everyone is very misinformed on this issue -- it's a dangerous situation. Opponents wanted to postpone the debate to make it clearer, but actually the debate is becoming more clouded. And our job is to remind people that, irrespective of the legal status of cannabis, we're not in favor of it being consumed, especially not on a regular basis."
But consumed it is, and illegal it shall remain, at least for now.