The Swiss House of Representatives Tuesday rejected a bill that would have amended the country's drug laws to allow for the legal personal use and production of marijuana and some domestic sales of the weed. By a vote of 102-92, the House for the second time rejected the proposal, which has twice been approved by the Swiss Senate.
The Swiss government has tried four times since December 2001 to win a vote to legalize personal pot use and production, to no avail. The effort was part of a larger drug law reform package pushed by the government. The vote Tuesday means that Switzerland's current drug laws, in place for nearly 30 years, will remain in place.
But the laws do not reflect Swiss social reality. According to the Federal Health Office, about 500,000 Swiss use marijuana, which is widely available and sold with a wink and a nod as "potpourri" at shops across the country.
"The opponents of reform lobbied hard against the new law, while reformers and the Federal Health Office did not do much lobbying," said Judith Laws of DroLeg, the Swiss Initiative for Responsible Drug Policy (http://www.droleg.ch). "Remember, this was a law that would amend all the drug laws, so people attacked it by saying that only a small percentage of people got off heroin and that drug policy has to be abstinence-based," she told DRCNet. "On marijuana in particular, they said we have to prohibit consumption to save the youth, and decriminalizing marijuana consumption would send the wrong message."
The Swiss government and its Federal Health Office pronounced themselves disappointed in the vote. "Rejection of the bill leads to fears that certain cantons will be tempted to make their own laws, which will create inequality in the country," Thomas Zeltner, director of the Federal Health Office, told Swiss Info. "We can continue to live with the law, but it does pose problems," he added.
The center-left Social Democrats, led by Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, noted in a press statement that the bill was defeated the same day parliament agreed to end a century-long ban on absinthe, a wormwood-based alcohol product notorious for its mind-bending qualities. Parliament's refusal to revise the country's drug law was a "denial of reality which raises doubts about whether we have a pragmatic and efficient public health policy," said the Social Democrats.
Politicians cannot ignore the country's substantial pot-smoking population, Couchepin said. "One cannot act as if they do not exist in the name of an unattainable ideal of abstinence," he said during the debate.
Police officers and educators also condemned the vote. Michel Graf from the Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction told Swiss Info the vote signaled a "lack of courage by politicians" and the "missed opportunity for a real debate."
The Swiss vote was also decried by European drug reformers. "It is a pity that the Swiss parliament has not taken this unique opportunity to write history, but it is only a question of time before they will," said Joep Oomen of ENCOD, the European NGO Council on Drugs (http://www.encod.org). "It is clear that there exists broad support for the proposal to legalize the cannabis market," he told DRCNet. "For us in Europe, Switzerland remains an island of hope and an excellent reference of what is possible in a country that is not especially known for its progressive policies on other matters, but has been relatively independent in elaborating drug policies, because it has not signed the 1988 UN Convention."
And while Swiss officials expressed concern about differential enforcement of the marijuana laws in different cantons, Oomen saw the chance for progress as well as the danger of moving backwards. "The present outcome will probably lead to more diversity in the country itself, with some local or regional authorities applying their own policies to regulate production, trade and distribution, while others may remain on the repressive side," he explained.
But despite broad support for reform, the right-wing Swiss People's Party, along with parliamentarians from the right-leaning Christian Democrats, was able to block any revision of the law. "The People's Party and the Christian Democrats and other religious groups that voted with them may have been able to defeat the bill, said DroLeg's Laws, "but they do not share a common vision of how to move forward. The religious groups at least mention the problem of alcohol and the general problem of addiction. Given the divisions in the opposition, all is not lost," she predicted.
While this vote to reform Swiss drug laws has been lost, the issue is not going away. The Christian Democrats have announced plans for a parliamentary initiative to revise the law according the "four pillars" strategy of prevention, therapy, repression and harm reduction, but without the full legalization of marijuana. The Christian Democrats will propose making pot-smoking a ticketable offense, with a small fine as the only punishment, but cultivation and sales would remain criminal offenses.
Also, Swiss Info reported, young Social Democrats and Greens have formed the Committee for the Protection of Young People Against the Criminalization of Drugs, which plans to launch a youth-based popular initiative. The committee seeks a "reasonable cannabis policy and efficient protection of young people."
And last but not least, reformers and marijuana activists will now get to work on their "hemp" initiative, which has been on hold while the government tried to legalize pot through parliamentary means. "The hemp initiative would decriminalize possession and home grows," said Laws. "We will start gathering signatures as soon as it is printed in the official bulletin, probably by the end of this month."