A nationwide clampdown on shops selling cannabis risks driving pot smokers into the hands of dealers pushing hard drugs, warn health officials.
They say drug dealers could be the main beneficiaries of parliament’s decision not to decriminalise cannabis.
In many parts of Switzerland, police have cracked down on hemp shops selling cannabis and related products. In Ticino, of the 75 outlets operating in 2002, only two remained in business in 2003.
“We are concerned about it, because in the shops we knew they could buy cannabis and products made with cannabis, and that was all,” said Sandra Meier, spokeswoman for the Federal Health Office.
Reports say dealers can net SFr70 ($57) on a gram of cocaine, compared with SFr15 on the same amount of cannabis. Dealers can be expected to push hard drugs for profit, Meier told swissinfo.
“There is a danger that [the users] not only can buy cannabis, but also heroin and other hard drugs,” she said.
Cannabis users are “mainly young people” whose exposure to hard drugs could come at a crucial time, with devastating impact, added Meier.
Psychiatrist Thilo Beck, who works at the clinic for methadone and heroin-assisted treatment in Zurich, said there was no evidence that pot use led to harder drugs.
But young people might be expected to experiment when hard drugs were offered, he told swissinfo.
“In my opinion every healthy adolescent wants to try different things.”
“What we are not so happy about is that marijuana is being treated the same as highly-addictive hard drugs – and it is not as serious if you compare. We would have an easier time getting our message across if people could keep these things apart in their minds.”
On June 14 parliament rejected moves to decriminalise cannabis - the fourth time since December 2001.
The vote against revised legislation means the existing 30-year-old law will remain in force.
According to the Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction, more than 500,000 people in Switzerland smoke pot regularly – more than one in 15 people. The rate of use drops after age 30.
The Federal Health Office supported decriminalisation because it felt the law should “reflect reality” and because it would allow some state control over the sale of cannabis, said its director Thomas Zeltner.
Meier added that the bill’s failure put the burden on the cantons to enforce the law, a fact that displeases police and teachers’ associations.
“The situation is not satisfactory. Police will have to apply their limited resources to bring charges against pot smokers,” Meier said.
“And the difficulties of applying legal provisions… will continue to be a headache for the authorities.”
swissinfo, Elizabeth Meen
More than 500,000 people in Switzerland say they use cannabis.
It is estimated that one in four young people under 25 smoke cannabis several times a week.
Last month the House of Representatives threw out a government proposal on decriminalising use and allowing limited production of the drug.
The authorities have closed down many shops which sold cannabis and hemp-related products.
Health officials fear that people buying marijuana on the street will be offered highly addictive drugs more profitable to dealers.