Switzerland Defends Cannabis Decrim, Tells UN Narcocrats to Buzz Off 8/9/02

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As Switzerland moves forward with its plans to decriminalize the possession and some sales of cannabis, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is in a snit. But the independent-minded Swiss have told the global prohibition enforcers to take a hike. Under the decrim plan, supported by the Swiss government and already passed by the Swiss Senate, possession and growing of cannabis for personal use will be permitted, as will limited sales of the drug. But cannabis imports and exports will be banned, as will advertising.

The INCB (http://www.incb.org) is an independent, quasi-judicial body set up under the UN Single Convention of 1961 to enforce the global prohibition regime whose backbone is the Single Convention and two later treaties. In its latest annual report, the INCB called the Swiss move to treat cannabis like alcohol or tobacco "a historic mistake" and warned that it would "amount to an unprecedented move towards legalization of the consumption, cultivation, manufacture, possession, purchase and sale of cannabis for non-medical purposes."

Worse yet in the INCB's eyes, such a move would contravene the UN Single Convention. "Allowing people to sell cannabis to anybody for non-medical reasons is simply not in line with the conventions," INCB secretary Herbert Schaepe told Swiss Radio International. "If this is the case, it goes against the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It would not be acceptable, since Switzerland's neighbors don't seem to be going down the same road," Schaepe added -- seemingly unaware of the wave of drug reform sweeping the continent.

The Swiss aren't buying it. "I've heard more people say it was a historic mistake to put cannabis on the list of substances that are totally prohibited," said Ueli Locher, deputy director of the Federal Office for Public Health. "We have to adapt to the changes in our society. We know more about how harmful -- or harmless -- cannabis is," he told Swiss Radio. "We cannot continue to treat it like heroin and cocaine."

The Swiss government has also had four independent legal assessments of the proposed cannabis law, and it said all four found the law to be consistent with the conventions. Under the law, cultivation and sale would technically remain illegal, but prosecutions would be few and far between. Sellers would be arrested only for selling to minors, selling hard drugs at the same time, or creating a public nuisance. The proposed law would only codify what is a de facto -- if differentially enforced -- decriminalization now. With an estimated half-million Swiss smoking cannabis, the herb is currently available under a variety of transparent guises, such as cannabis "potpourri" or aromatic cannabis pillows filled with kind bud. The assumption is that most pillow purchasers are smoking the contents rather than resting their heads on them.

INCB secretary Schaepe warned that it is the obligation of governments to uphold the conventions, but also added some words that indicate the global drug warriors may be beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. "The conventions are not cast in stone. They can be amended," he conceded. "Ultimately, it is in the hands of governments to decide future drug policies." But, global prohibition bureaucrat that he is, Schaepe added, "there is a procedure that has to be followed. We cannot have a lawless situation at the international level."

For the health office's Locher, the move is pragmatic response to Swiss social reality. "We are trying to deal with the reality -- to have and honest and consistent approach to a problem -- and not continue to have laws which are not applied," he said. "Time will tell whether cannabis is also reconsidered at the level of international conventions."

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