Swiss move closer to decriminalisation of cannabis

Cannabis is the subject of an increasingly heated debate in Switzerland Keystone

The decriminalisation of cannabis has long been a controversial issue in Switzerland.

This content was published on February 19, 2003 - 13:57

A parliamentary commission met on Wednesday to discuss the possible liberalisation of the drug in Switzerland. The Senate has already come out in favour of such a move.

However, anti-decriminalisation sentiment is growing, with the staunchest opposition centred in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

Opponents of liberalisation have stepped up pressure on parliamentarians, and one of the country's leading drug prevention agencies says it has even been offered cash to oppose the government's plans.

Since the end of last year, the country's German-language media has published a number of articles - often citing the "British Medical Journal" - warning of the potential psychological dangers of cannabis use.

Christine Goll, vice-president of the parliamentary commission for social security and health, believes the articles form part of an orchestrated campaign by former members of the "Youth without Drugs" campaign.

Goll says that campaigners have now regrouped under the "Parents without Drugs" association.

Opposition mounting

The commission says it has received a number of letters opposing liberalisation, which appear to form part of a co-ordinated campaign.

"These campaigners are hoping to influence parliamentarians and prevent a referendum on the decriminalisation of cannabis," Goll told swissinfo.

If parliament does agree to change the law, opponents would need to collect 50,000 signatures to force a nationwide referendum on the issue.

The Senate showed its clear support for decriminalisation in December 2001, coming out in favour of the move by 32 votes to eight.

The House of Representatives could vote on the issue during the special parliamentary session in May.

Teachers back campaign

Opponents received a boost at the end of January when the Swiss-German teachers union (LCH) issued a statement criticising the decriminalisation of cannabis.

"Unlike alcohol, cannabis has a direct and epidemic influence on daily school life," stated the union.

It added that it did not want school to become "a therapy centre, where people come to sober up or to catch up on their sleep".

The Swiss-French teachers union (SER) is backing the anti-decriminalisation campaign.

Marie Claire Tabin, the union's president, echoed the concerns voiced in the LCH's statement.

"The risks of psychological dependence are very real," she told swissinfo. "Do we want a society full of dopey people, who take less and less responsibility for their actions?

"We can't let cannabis consumption become as commonplace as eating bread or, unfortunately, cigarettes."

Drug prevention

Drug prevention agencies are, however, surprised by the teachers' stance.

Michel Graf, joint director of the Swiss Institute for the Drug and Alcohol Prevention (ISPA), is among those who believe that liberalisation is the best way of combating addiction.

"Repression prevents us from being able to contact cannabis users and helping them to stop taking the drug," Graf explained. "Decriminalisation allows us to treat the user as opposed to simply turning them over to the police."


Graf says that campaigners are currently rallying support in preparation for an eventual referendum.

He told swissinfo that he had received a number of offers from certain pressure groups willing to pay the IPSA for its backing.

Yves Guisan, a parliamentarian and doctor, is particularly critical of the teachers' campaign, complaining of their "insupportably lax attitude towards other substances, in particular tobacco".

Guisan, who is a member of the parliamentary commission, does not believe opponents to liberalisation will be able to influence the views of parliament.

"It's a last-ditch attempt by a few die-hards; the battle is already lost," he said. "Most importantly, the commission has not changed its stance on decriminalisation."

swissinfo, Ariane Gigon Bormann in Zurich

In brief

A parliamentary commission met on Wednesday for a three-day discussion on the decriminalisation of cannabis.

The Senate has already come out in favour of legal cannabis consumption, and parliament is expected to also come out in favour.

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.

But an anti-decriminalisation campaign, particularly strong among the German-speaking Swiss, is rallying for support against the plans.

A parliamentary vote is likely to take place during the special session in May.

Cannabis use is currently illegal in Switzerland, but the authorities have adopted a "tolerant" attitude towards it.

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