Parliament debates relaxing cannabis law

Dope smoking is an everyday reality in Switzerland Keystone Archive

Government plans to decriminalise dope smoking are due to be discussed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

This content was published on September 23, 2003 - 11:02

If the proposals become law, Switzerland would have one of the most liberal policies on cannabis in Europe.

The Senate has already approved legislation that would allow possession and production of cannabis for personal use, as well as limited trade in the drug.

But even if the proposals are backed by parliament, there are already signs that opponents would call for a nationwide ballot.

Luzi Stamm, a Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian, says Swiss voters should have the final decision on the matter.

“This is an exception to most issues that come before parliament,” he told swissinfo.

“It’s a situation in which the population can judge better than most politicians,” he added.

Everyday reality

Many feel new legislation is necessary to bring the law into line with everyday reality in Switzerland.

Around half a million people are thought to be regular cannabis users even though its consumption, trade and production are all illegal.

Implementing the law is a cantonal responsibility, and while some are vigorous in enforcing the law, others turn a blind eye.

Martin Büechi of the Federal Health Office insists the law needs to be changed to close existing loopholes.

“The present situation is unacceptable,” he told swissinfo. “People aren’t always aware that they can be prosecuted for smoking, planting or growing cannabis.”

“This new legislation will clarify the situation and give the authorities better control over what is happening – especially in terms of growing and selling.”

Cannabis capital

Stamm also believes the current policy is intolerable, but is concerned that the government’s proposals will create even more problems.

“The question of how to prevent children getting their hands on cannabis remains unanswered for me,” he said.

“And obviously there are international implications: people will come to Switzerland simply to buy cannabis here and then export it.”

But Büechi insists Switzerland would not become a magnet for tourists looking for easy access to a drug that is illegal back home. He says the new legislation would prevent foreigners from buying cannabis.

“That would solve what is already a very big problem for example in canton Ticino,” he said. “Because foreigners will not be allowed to buy cannabis, the local authorities will be able to stop its export.”

Cross-border trade with Italian customers has soared in recent years, and even though Italian customs services have beefed up their checks at the border, there is still a thriving trade.

Hair-splitting

The House of Representatives is expected to follow the Senate’s lead in approving the proposals. But if it follows the advice of its commission, it will also ask for a huge tax to be imposed on cannabis at the point of sale.

This could swell government coffers by around SFr300 million annually.

Büechi says that details still need to be ironed out as to the exact quantity a person would be allowed to buy each day and remains adamant that the proposals would lead to cannabis being “decriminalised” rather than “legalised”.

“This legislation would mean that anyone smoking, planting or selling cannabis would not be subject to prosecution as long as they kept to certain conditions – that’s decriminalisation,” he said.

But many, including Stamm, accuse the government of “splitting hairs”.

“It’s ridiculous to call their proposals simply decriminalisation,” he said. “What it [amounts to] is the legalisation of cannabis.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Dope

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

The Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction says around 50% of boys and 40% of girls between 15-16 years have tried cannabis at least once.

Under the proposals, possession and production of cannabis for personal use would be allowed, as well as limited trade in the drug.

But it would remain illegal to import or export cannabis and advertising would be banned.

The Senate approved proposals to decriminalise cannabis in December 2001.

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