On March 9th, the Swiss government took another step on its path toward cannabis decriminalization as it endorsed and submitted to parliament a bill that would legalize the possession and consumption of cannabis, allow a limited number of "smoke shops" to open, and encourage police to ignore small-scale growing and commerce. The government also proposed a flexible approach toward prosecuting users of other illegal drugs. (See http://www.drcnet.org/wol/154.html#swissdecrim for prior coverage of the Swiss initiative.)
The move would bring the law into line with the reality that in Switzerland marijuana and hashish smoking are so common as to be considered banal. A study undertaken in November and released last month found that one in four Swiss aged 15-24 gets high on a regular basis and that half of all Swiss teens and young adults have tried cannabis. The study by the Swiss Institute for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (available in French and German at http://www.sfa-ispa.ch/Actions/fr/enquete_cannabis.htm and http://www.sfa-ispa.ch/Actions/de/Cannabisuebersicht.htm respectively) also found that a majority of Swiss favor cannabis decriminalization. The study's survey of 1600 people between 15 and 74 found that 54% supported softening the penalties for marijuana, both use and sales.
The Swiss government agrees.
"Decriminalizing the consumption of cannabis and the acts leading up to this takes account of social reality and unburdens police and the courts," the government said in a statement accompanying the bill's submission.
The draft bill is only the latest step on the Swiss government's achingly slow move toward relaxing the cannabis laws. Last October, the cabinet agreed in principle to legalize cannabis consumption. The draft sent to parliament last week represents the government's attempt to transform its October recommendation into the language of law.
Judith Laws of Droleg, the Swiss Initiative for a Reasonable Drug Policy (http://www.droleg.ch), told DRCNet her organization approved of the draft bill.
"At first, it looked as if only cannabis would be decriminalized, and we saw little hope for a solution to what to do about growing and selling," she told DRCNet. "But now we are quite happy with the proposal, decriminalizing cannabis, not always criminalizing users of hard drugs, and providing a legal framework for growing and selling marijuana."
Droleg lobbied the government after the October announcement, Law told DRCNet. In a letter to parliament, the group argued that the status quo on cannabis was absurd and that criminalizing hard drug users only made it more difficult to reach them.
And in an indication of why the need exists to codify Switerland's informal acceptance of cannabis decriminalization, Law also contradicted earlier DRCNet reports that cannabis growers and the Alpine nation's hemp shops, where cannabis for smoking is sold under various guises, are going about their business unmolested by the police.
"It is not true that the hemp shops get no visits from the police," Law told DRCNet. "Several hemp shops have been accused and closed and one marijuana growing gardening company lost lots of their harvest. The police cut down the plants in the fields, and tried to sell the hemp legally, and guarded it, but then it was all destroyed."
Some of the hemp shops have been allowed to reopen, Law wrote, because of Swiss judicial decisions barring unequal enforcement of the laws.
The draft law must be approved by parliament, but the government that submitted the draft reflects the political alignment within the Bundesrat, and the bill is expected to pass. Still, there is conservative opposition to both cannabis decriminalization and a more relaxed approach to hard drugs. Under Swiss law, opponents of a measure approved by parliament have 90 days to call a national referendum to overturn the law. According to the BBC, the far right has vowed it will call a referendum if the drug reform law passes.