Experts debate what to do about cannabis

Thomas Kern/

Should pot be outlawed, controlled, or just legalised? For anti-addiction experts, regulating consumption would counter a drug market associated with violent crime and lead to better public health and safety. But not everyone agrees.

This content was published on July 22, 2012 minutes

The Swiss legislative position on cannabis is unambiguous: growing it, consuming it and dealing in it are all forbidden. At the same time, however, the 1951 legislation allows for some margin of tolerance. Preparation of a very small quantity of drugs for personal use is not a crime.

There are also the usual local variations in the federal system. It is up to the 26 cantons to apply the national legislation and implement prohibitions and sanctions which may vary depending on the realities at a local level.

“Lack of uniformity at cantonal level creates confusion - you can’t be sure whether cannabis is tolerated or banned outright. We need to have clearer rules”, Jean-Félix Savary, secretary-general of Grea, a group studying drug addiction in French-speaking Switzerland.

A step in this direction was taken by parliament this year. Both houses agreed on the principle that adult cannabis users should be fined and not subjected to criminal charges.

Possession of up to ten grams would bring a fine of SFr100 or SFr200 ($102 or $204) - there is still disagreement on the amount - similar to what happens with traffic violations.

“We are moving from criminal offence to misdemeanour, so in some sense we can talk in terms of decriminalisation. The behaviour itself is still banned,” emphasises Savary, for whom parliament deserves credit for “having made things clearer”.

The modified legislation will mean sanctions can be applied more uniformly across Switzerland and a more unified approach to prevention, the Senate was told by centre-left Social Democrat member Liliane Maury Pasquier.

First step

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party is taking a different line. It argues imposing just a fine on consumption is really the first step towards the legalisation of cannabis.

Decriminalisation would be contrary to the will of the people, as the lobby group, Abstinence from Drugs, points out in a statement. Voters in 2008 threw out an initiative advocating cannabis legalisation.

Once again, the group says, the danger involved in consuming cannabis is being played down, whereas this can often be one of the factors triggering personal crisis among young people.

In the last 15 years, the debate on cannabis and drugs in general has been dominated by the criminalisation of consumption, notes Savary. “All the studies, however, show that repression has failed.”

Today however people are back to talking about regulating the market, he says, emphasising that cannabis has become above all “a security issue”.


Trafficking in cannabis “remains a highly profitable business, which attracts criminals,” the Federal Police Office says in its latest report. What is particularly worrisome is the merging of the cannabis market with the market for hard drugs - cocaine and heroin - controlled by organised crime.

This development sows a feeling of insecurity among ordinary people, who are more and more faced with drug-dealing in public places and the expansion of criminal networks, notes Savary.

He warns that people are likely to turn their backs on the “four-pronged approach” of Swiss drug policy if there is no reaction. (see sidebar)

Switzerland should therefore allow “some room for manoeuvre to cantons and communes so that they can experiment with solutions to manage the problem.”

Savary adds that some ideas in the government’s earlier proposal for a regulation of the cannabis market should be reconsidered. The 2001 bill – shelved by parliament – was going to decriminalise consumption, but also allow a limited number of points of sale, while at the same time focusing on prevention among youth.

“It is not a question of opening coffee shops, but rather establishing a framework of rules for those who want to use cannabis”, explains Savary.

Market regulation

For Addictions Switzerland, the Swiss institute for the prevention of alcoholism and other drug addictions, regulating the market seems to be the best solution.

“That would allow the consumer to acquire cannabis legally and to dissociate it from other substances like cocaine,” says Ségolène Samouiller.

She points out that if cannabis is sold under state supervision, it will be possible to keep a better eye on the quality of the product in terms of the level of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the active principle in cannabis] and pesticides found in it.

Experiments of this kind are presently under study in the cities of Zurich and Basel.

Switzerland could get further inspiration from models that are catching on abroad, says Savary, who cites the example of Cannabis Social Clubs in Spain and Belgium. “These are cooperatives whose members can grow their own and smoke it inside a particular location known to the police.”

The advantage of these associations of growers, he goes on, is that fact that consumers are registered. It is therefore possible to protect young people and run programmes of prevention and risk reduction.

Grégoire Monney, psychologist for the information site, shares this point of view. “The danger here,” he adds, though, “may be trivialising the issue: we should not give young people any message that consumption is ‘normal’.”

Whatever measures are adopted, “results must come before ideology”, concludes Savary. Otherwise it will be difficult to find effective solutions that protect health and reduce criminal involvement.

Four-pronged approach

Swiss policy on drugs is based on a four-pronged approach:

Prevention: avoid the start of consumption and development of addiction.

Therapy: supply adequate help to persons addicted to drugs, improve their health status and facilitate social integration.

Reduction: contain physical, mental and social harm due to drug use.

Repression: implement the ban on illegal drugs.

The Federal Health Office claims that this policy has led to important successes.

Among them are a net reduction in deaths linked to drugs and drug-related crime, improvement in the health of drug addicts and the disappearance of the open drug scene.

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Lighting up less

Between 119 and 224 million people use cannabis as a drug according to the UN World Drug Report, June 2012).

In Switzerland the percentage of consumers of cannabis between 13 and 29 years of age is 10.4% (amounting to 170,000 people), according to the Federal Health Office.

The proportion was 11.1% in 2007 and 13.3% in 2004.

Among the main reasons leading people to quit, participants mentioned “no longer wanting to” or being “concerned about their mental and physical health”.

1.1% of young people stated they use cannabis “almost every day” (1.9% in 2004).

Of the occasional and regular users, 22.2% represent a “problem” according to the criteria of a Cannabis Use Disorders Test. It focuses on aspects like frequency, intensity and social effects of cannabis use.

In Switzerland, 35% of youths of 15 state they have already smoked at least one joint. This is the highest percentage of the 35 countries included in the study on the health of school-age youth by the World Health Organization.

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