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Cannabis dreams drift away

Authorities in Switzerland are clamping down on cannabis

(Keystone Archive)

Following decades of rising cannabis use and talk of liberalisation, Switzerland had appeared poised to become the marijuana capital of Europe.

The country still boasts some of the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe, but Switzerland's pot movement has taken a hit in the past few years.

Unfortunately for activists and aficionados, it is the wrong type of hit – proposed liberalisation did not come to pass, enforcement has been on the rise and use among the country's youth has decreased.

Exhibitors and customers at Switzerland's international hemp fair have been feeling the pressure.

"This year, we had some special problems with the police," Ben Arn, the organiser of the CannaTrade show, told swissinfo.

Held in the Swiss capital Bern at the end of March, the show attracted 130 vendors from North America and Europe, around 15,000 visitors and a sustained police presence.

Police officers had swept the exhibition hall on opening day and made regular rounds throughout the event. This year, the sale of seeds – allowed for the past seven years – was prohibited.

Repression

"I think this is another part of the repression against the whole hemp community," Arn explained.

In 2004, the Federal Health Office introduced a new strategy to combat the drug after parliament rejected reforms to the country's 1951 Federal Narcotics Act.

The Health Office's cannabis prevention action plan targeted youth and became part of the government's four-point drug policy: prevention, therapy, harm reduction and law enforcement.

From 2004 to 2007, cannabis use did indeed decrease – but only marginally.

The Health Office says that around 30 per cent of 15-year-olds have tried the drug at least once, and around 500,000 across the country use it on a regular basis.

Enforcement varies widely from canton to canton, but cannabis remains an illegal narcotic throughout the country. Possession, use and distribution are punishable by up to three years in prison, and thousands of offences are recorded each year.

Activists say they walk a fine line between what they can and cannot get away with and manufacturers of high-tech growing equipment deny being involved in the illegal industry.

Officially, exhibitors at the hemp fair appeared above-board: some booths displayed tobacco and rolling papers, but apart from the smell in the air, the main ingredient was conspicuously absent.

Steps away from the water bongs, a representative of Growth Technology, a British equipment supplier, denied targeting the illegal hemp industry.

"No. My products are worldwide products," he insisted. "Everybody needs nutrients to grow a variety of plants."

Legitimacy

Booths showcasing hemp clothing, hemp tea and hemp beer reflect the multiple uses of a practical and efficient crop, utilised by humans for thousands of years.

The completely legitimate sector of the industry has no reservations displaying the leaf on its packaging.

The makers of Extravganja cosmetics and creams have come from Slovenia. Their products are made with hemp oil, an edible product known to have high concentrations of healthful Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.

"We have no problems distributing our products in Switzerland," the company's representative told swissinfo. Cannabis free of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the drug's active ingredient, is legal here.

In North America, many jurisdictions are discussing liberalising drug laws, and authorities often tacitly overlook simple possession. Politicians in Canada talk of decriminalisation and at least one medical marijuana vending machine has been set up in California.

Back in Switzerland industrial hemp is no longer a cottage industry; it is continuing to gain acceptance and its use is growing.

But those looking to smoke, vaporise or bake their drug of choice in brownies believe that influential, conspiratorial interests are standing in the way.

Activists say powerful interest groups – the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries – are looking for a scapegoat.

Arn believes cannabis has become a "black sheep" and argues that Switzerland's legal vices are actually more harmful.

"Tobacco and alcohol are much harder drugs than cannabis," he said. He is unconvinced it will ever become truly legitimate in Switzerland.

A popular initiative to decriminalise the drug could come to a nationwide vote in the next two years.

swissinfo, Justin Häne

Risks and benefits

Studies investigating the cancer risk behind cannabis have yielded mixed results, but recent information suggests the drug can have other long-term effects.

A 2007 report in the British medical journal, The Lancet, stated that users are at a higher risk of developing psychosis later in life, and a Zurich University study claimed smokers were more likely to develop schizophrenia.

Chronically ill patients often have more pressing concerns. Medical marijuana users often cannot stomach strong pharmaceuticals and the drug is an effective form of pain relief.

How to define medical marijuana is another question. In certain jurisdictions, doctors issue prescriptions.

Goods containing negligible amounts of THC are legal in Switzerland.

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Getting high

Bongs, pipes, joints, blunts and brownies. There are different ways of getting high, and some are more effective than others.

High temperature vaporisation causes the THC in cannabis to become a gas. It is said to produce a stronger effect than smoking, with fewer harmful chemicals.

Cannabis can be eaten and is often baked in brownies or cakes. The THC is more efficiently absorbed into the bloodstream, but the effects take longer to be felt.

Smoking cannabis, particularly combined with tobacco, can cause lung cancer. It provides an almost-immediate hit, but is less efficient.

Marijuana tea is mildly psychoactive.

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