Despite dogged opposition by conservatives, parliament has approved a proposal to impose a fine on consumers of small amounts of cannabis instead of opening formal criminal proceedings. However, the decision stops short of legalising the substance.
The move, which brings Switzerland in line with other European countries that tolerate dope smoking in small amounts, comes four years after voters rejected a plan to decriminalise cannabis.
Following several rounds of discussions in both parliamentary chambers, the House of Representatives agreed to align with the Senate on Thursday, paving the way for the final reading of the bill at the end of the autumn session next week.
Trying unsuccessfully to double the proposed SFr100 ($108) fine for dope smoking, Thomas de Courten of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party warned legislators of “giving the wrong message” and even encouraging young cannabis consumers. His call was backed by some members of centre-right parties.
Supporters, mainly among the political left, argued liberalising the legislation was a small but realistic approach to cannabis consumption. They criticised opponents for their entrenched attitudes and double standards.
“The very mention of the word cannabis seems to trigger psychotropic effects among some members of this chamber;” said Yvonne Gilli of the Green Party.
The proposal, which was sponsored by the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, foresees imposing a fine on consumers above the legal age who are caught with up to 10 grams of cannabis.
Interior Minister Alain Berset said the cabinet supported the bill, albeit “without enthusiasm”.
At the top
Up to 500,000 people in Switzerland are believed to smoke cannabis occasionally or regularly, with officials noting a downward trend over the past decade.
One in ten people between 13 and 29 years of age are cannabis consumers according to the Federal Health Office, putting Switzerland at the top of a list of 35 countries worldwide.
The discoveries of illegal hemp plantations regularly make local news in Switzerland.
In 2008 voters threw out a government proposal to legalise the possession, consumption and controlled trade in cannabis. Four years earlier, parliament refused to discuss the issue.
Current law on pot smoking differs widely across Switzerland. Some cantons have decriminalised cannabis consumption by introducing a small fine for a misdemeanour, while perpetrators in Ticino face criminal proceedings and fines of up to SFr3,000.
About 30,000 cases of dope smoking are reported to the courts every year in Switzerland.
Legalisation: Drugs have not been legalised anywhere in the world. Legalisation would mean the freedom to produce, sell, buy and consume drugs just like alcohol, tobacco and medicines.
Decriminalisation: Under this approach, possession and consumption of small quantities do not lead to prosecution but generally to a fine. Legally equivalent to a parking offence.
Most countries in western Europe, as well as Canada and Latin America, to a large degree tolerate the use of small amounts or have decriminalised it.
Four pillar policy: Switzerland pioneered the four pillar drugs strategy, including the prescription of heroin for hard-core addicts, in the 1990s.