Switzerland has dismissed an international report criticising its decision to decriminalise cannabis, saying its approach is honest and realistic.This content was published on February 28, 2002 - 12:55
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said it would be a "historic mistake" if cannabis were effectively placed in the same category as alcohol and tobacco.
But the Swiss authorities disagree. "I've heard more people say it was a historic mistake to put cannabis on the list of substances that are totally prohibited," says Ueli Locher, deputy director of the Federal Office for Public Health.
"We have to adapt to the changes in our society. We know more about how harmful - or harmless - cannabis is. We cannot continue to treat it like heroin and cocaine," he told swissinfo.
In its annual report, the INCB says the draft Swiss law - which has already been approved by the Senate - would go much further than simply decriminalising cannabis consumption.
It would, the board believes, "amount to an unprecedented move towards legalisation of the consumption, cultivation, manufacture, possession, purchase and sale of cannabis for non-medical purposes".
"It would entail additional health problems to those we have already with alcohol and tobacco," INCB secretary Herbert Schaepe told swissinfo.
The INCB, an independent Vienna-based watchdog that oversees the implementation of United Nations drugs treaties, says the Swiss law would contravene the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
The Swiss government disagrees. It says four independent legal assessments have found that the law is consistent with the convention, and that under the proposed law, the cultivation and sale of cannabis would remain illegal.
However, prosecutions would likely be few and far between. It would be permissible to sell the drug to people over the age of 18, provided they do not publicise their dealing, do not sell hard drugs at the same time, and are not a public nuisance.
Schaepe argues that "Allowing people to sell cannabis to anybody for non-medical purposes is simply not in line with the conventions".
In Locher's view, though, the Swiss position is a common-sense reaction to a better scientific understanding of illegal substances, a change in public attitudes and a shortage of resources to pursue law-breakers.
"We are trying to deal with the reality - to have an honest and consistent approach to a problem - and not continue to have laws which are not applied," Locher explains.
"Time will tell whether cannabis is also reconsidered at the level of international conventions," he adds.
Schaepe says it is the job of the INCB to point out to governments and the public when countries fail to abide by their treaty obligations. It is up to governments, he says, to amend conventions if they feel they are no longer relevant.
"The conventions are not cast in stone. They can be amended. Ultimately, it is in the hands of governments to decide future drug policies," he says. "But there is a procedure that has to be followed. We cannot have a lawless situation at the international level."
by Roy Probert