Feature: Swiss Marijuana Legalization to Go to Voters... Unless Parliament Acts First 1/20/06

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A year and a half after conservative opposition in Switzerland's lower chamber blocked a measure that would have legalized marijuana, proponents of reform have succeeded in gathering enough signatures from Swiss voters to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. A coalition of political figures, cannabis activists, doctors, psychologists, and celebrities united under the banner "For Child and Youth Protection Against Drug Crime," and assisted by an army of volunteer signature gatherers handed in more than 105,000 signatures to federal authorities in Bern last Friday.

marijuana banner in Basel's Fasnacht festival
(courtesy starswebworx.ch)
While Switzerland has developed a reputation as a cannabis-friendly country with high use rates -- there are an estimated 500,000 users -- recent years have seen some backsliding. There have been crackdowns on shops selling cannabis (artfully marketed as hemp "potpourri"), arrests of prominent activists, and efforts by Christian conservatives in parliament to tighten up the pot laws. Those same parliamentary conservatives were responsible for blocking the 2004 reform measure.

"Our aim is to decriminalize cannabis consumption under strict rules, and encourage parliament to draft its own compromise solution," parliamentarian Ursula Wyss, one of the movers in the coalition, told the Swiss news service Swissinfo.

"All Swiss initiatives change the constitution," said Judith Laws, secretary of Droleg, a Swiss group favoring drug reform ("Droleg" = "drug legalization"). "If the initiative is successful, parliament would then have to write new laws" to comply with the newly amended constitution, she told DRCNet.

"This initiative is necessary to push the discussion on hemp, which was frozen after parliament blocked the 2004 reform," said Laws. "Now the discussion is back on the table, and many people are happy. Things move slowly, but they do move," she said. The referendum is already sparking renewed discussion, Laws said. "There was already one program on Swiss official TV this week talking about it and the question of drug use among youngsters," she said.

Wyss told Swissinfo the initiative was not calling for the outright legalization of the marijuana trade, but that may be a little disingenuous. According to the wording of the referendum, "the consumption of psychoactive substances in the hemp plant as well as their possession and acquisition for personal use will be free of punishment." A separate article states that cannabis cultivation will also be free of punishment. And a third article says "the government shall issue regulations about the cultivation, production, import, export, and commerce involving psychoactive substances of the hemp plant." A final article says that youth will be protected and advertising will be prohibited.

"I think very restrictive rules have to be set to protect children and youth. It must be clear that the measures are enforced, for cannabis and alcohol alike," said Wyss, hammering on a theme critical for the measure's success. With high youth use rates and the rising popularity of cannabis since the 1990s, the issue of youth and drugs is a wedge issue for the conservative opposition.

"Switzerland has been too liberal in its drugs policy," the rightist Swiss People's Party spokesman Roman Jaggi told Swissinfo. "We welcome increased police efforts to close illegal hemp shops. But clearly more needs to be done to stop children as young as 12 smoking cannabis. We're against liberalizing cannabis. There is ample scientific proof gathered over the past 40 years to show that pot smoking is not conducive to your health," Jaggi added.

While the People's Party was instrumental in blocking action in parliament in 2004, reformers like Wyss said they were confident her center-left Social Democratic Party could build a broad alliance with center-right Radicals and Christian Democrats to set the stage for a political compromise. If a consensus is reached in parliament, a deal could be struck before voters even have a chance to endorse the measure. In the Swiss political process, it could be as long as two years before the initiative comes before the voters.

"Two years is normal for an initiative," said Laws. "The government has to discuss this and make a recommendation either in favor of or against the initiative. It can also create its own proposal, and then voters would have to choose between the initiative and the government's solution to the problem, or they could just vote no if they want no change. If the government is scared the initiative would pass, it may try to work for something more 'moderate' or 'digestible," Laws explained.

The initiative or a deal brokered by parliamentarians would probably have the backing of the Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. While the government body declined to comment on the specifics of the initiative, it has supported decriminalization in the past. "It also makes it easier to treat addicted pot smokers and the patients in turn don't face major obstacles when they're looking for help," spokeswoman Janine Messerli told Swissinfo.

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Issue #419 -- 1/20/06

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Feature: Alaska Bill to Recriminalize Marijuana Fast-Tracked, Passes Senate | Feature: With Conservatives Poised to take Power, Canadian Drug Reform Ponders an Unfriendly Future | Feature: Swiss Marijuana Legalization to Go to Voters... Unless Parliament Acts First | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Supreme Court Ruling: Administration Cannot Use Federal Drug Laws to Block Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law -- Attempts Increased Pain Levels Among Dying | Medical Marijuana: San Diego Term Limits Initiative Filed in Response to Supervisors' Attacks on State Medical Marijuana Law | Medical Marijuana: New Mexico Governor Puts Compassionate Use Act on Legislative Agenda | Mothering: Utah Appeals Court Overturns Child Endangerment Charge in Marijuana Breast-Feeding Case, But Upholds Law Itself | Marijuana: "Weeds" Actress Mary Louise Parker Wins Golden Globe, Says "Legalize It" | Europe: Britain Will Not Reclassify Cannabis as a More Harmful Drug -- Advisory Council Calls Risk of Mental Illness "Very Small" | Latin America: Colombian President Forced to Probe Paramilitary Influence-Buying | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar |

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