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Drug policy

Swiss health minister open to cannabis distribution trials

Health Minister Alain Berset has welcomed the possibility of organised trials for the distribution of cannabis in Switzerland, within the parameters of the country’s existing laws.

In an interview with the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, Berset said that his department welcomes trying out “new models and directions” such as controlled cannabis trials, as long as the necessary special permits are sought. Cannabis consumption in Switzerland is currently punishable with a fine of CHF100 ($103).

When asked whether such trials would open a back door for legalisation of the substance, Berset answered with a clear “no”.

“The Swiss people voted down a legalisation initiative in 2008, but they also accepted the new drug law, which allows for special permits for medical treatments or research projects,” he elaborated.

However, he said his department had not yet received any requests for such special permits from cantons or communes. Recently, the city of Bern announced its intent to seek such a permit in order to study the distribution of cannabis to a select group of study participants via pharmacies.

On Sunday, the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper reported that farmers are hoping to get in on Bern's planned cannabis trial, with dozens having inquired with the city about the possibility of growing the plant to supply the experiment. The Swiss Farmers' Association said the possibility of growing cannabis would be especially interesting for farmers given the decline in prices for certain other crops such as sugar beets. 

No carte blanche

Berset also said that instead of indicating that cannabis consumption isn’t a big deal, his department's openness to trials with the substance shows that it is aware of the issues it can create.

“It’s a fact that more than one fifth of the population has experience with cannabis,” he said. “So we can’t just look away – we have to unabashedly seek and test new ideas.”

The health minister admitted that politics surrounding controlled substances can be somewhat hypocritical, noting that “the same groups that think cannabis should be banned demand complete freedom when it comes to alcohol and tobacco”.

For that reason, Berset said the Swiss government is recommending a ban on tobacco advertising aimed at young people.

The health minister also admitted that he had tried cannabis as a 23-year-old but that it had made him sick.

This week, Berset will attend a special United Nations session about drug policy in New York. He argued that Switzerland’s “four pillar” approach to drugs remains a model for the rest of the world, wherein it advocates for repression, prevention, therapy and harm reduction by, for example, giving out heroin in controlled doses to the heavily addicted.

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