Cannabis decision exposes political fears

Reforms on dope smoking have been postponed once again Keystone Archive

Opponents of moves to decriminalise cannabis have scored a victory, with the House of Representatives throwing out the government’s proposals.

This content was published on September 25, 2003 minutes

But the Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction told swissinfo the vote exposed a serious lack of courage.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives rejected legislation that would have allowed possession and production of cannabis for personal use, as well as limited trade in the drug.

The bill, which had already been approved by the Senate, would have resulted in Switzerland having one of the most liberal policies on cannabis in Europe. It won the support of those who believed it was time to bring legislation in line with reality.

Michel Graf, deputy head of the institute, says he is sorely disappointed by the move.

swissinfo: What is your reaction to the proposal being voted down?

Michel Graf: I am disappointed by this lack of political courage. It shows that politicians are not comfortable with the issue of public health.

They’re mixing up moral values with the interests of public health, both of which they have to defend.

This means that cannabis users will basically still be considered as criminals, whereas we see them as people who are at risk – especially if they are young.

swissinfo: Do you think that the rejection of the proposal was politically motivated and linked to the upcoming general elections? Or does it reflect a change in the way cannabis is perceived?

M.G.: I think it’s a bit of both. On the one hand, parliamentarians are keeping their cards close to their chest ahead of the elections on what is a very complex issue. And because this is such a complex issue, experts haven’t been able to spell out what decriminalisation will mean exactly.

We must not allow ourselves to be lazy. We have to find clearer, more effective ways of containing cannabis consumption.

No politician wants to see everyone smoking [dope]. But the truth is that whether or not it’s forbidden by law, some of the population will continue to do so.

Our job is to make sure that these smokers are well-informed and that their [use of cannabis] doesn’t become problematic… and that they don’t wind up as criminals.

swissinfo: The media seem to have picked up on research showing the most dangerous side effects of cannabis.

M.G.: Anything that anyone’s said during the past months on cannabis has been heavily banded about by the media.

For instance, it was said that a joint was up to five times as toxic as a cigarette – a claim which was never backed up by the scientific community.

There then were some psychiatrists who said [cannabis] caused mental disorders among teenagers. But they forgot to say that this applied only to a minority of them.

The majority of occasional smokers never have a problem, and this is true for a lot of teenagers and young adults. But people mix up occasional and regular use, which of course is dangerous - irrespective of age.

swissinfo: So is the institute going to continue informing people on this subject?

M.G.: Of course! We were the first to do so and we’ll carry on informing people in the most objective manner possible.

Opponents of cannabis reform play on fears and prefer to bury their heads in the sand.

But they have to realise that just because the debate is dragging doesn’t mean that the situation will disappear. Everyone is very misinformed on this issue – it’s a dangerous situation.

Opponents wanted to postpone the debate to make it clearer, but actually the debate is becoming more clouded. And our job is to remind people that, irrespective of the legal status of cannabis, we’re not in favour of it being consumed, especially not on a regular basis.

swissinfo-interview: Anne Rubin (translation: Vanessa Mock)

In brief

Around half a million people in Switzerland are thought to be regular cannabis users.

The House of Representatives rejected proposals that would have allowed the possession and production of cannabis for personal use, as well as limited trade in the drug.

The Senate, which backed the proposals in 2001, will now have to redraft the bill.

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