Swiss May Ease Rules on the Sale of Cannabis

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Mar 27, 2001.

  1. By Elizabeth Olson
    Source: New York Times

    Once a month, Didier, a clean-cut 37-year- old government worker, stops by a little shop called Growland, just around the corner from the city's elegant concert hall. Like 10 other shops in Bern, Growland sells hemp products and is listed in telephone directories under cannabis.
    Didier, who declined to give his full name, said he was a regular smoker and had come to stock up. So did a steady stream of other customers.

    While the sale of cannabis for smoking at Growland and its competitors is illegal, that law is not strongly enforced in this part of Switzerland. Drug laws are applied more strictly in the French-speaking western part of the country, where Didier lives. And that is why he comes here, instead of buying at home in Neuchâtel, an hour away. "It's not a problem," he said. "Everybody knows you can come to Bern and get it."

    But even if laws remain unevenly enforced for now, more and more Swiss, it seems, openly flout them and more police officers overlook it. The scent of marijuana can be found on trains, in stations and in restaurants, and cannabis is available for home delivery from Internet sites.

    In fact, a government survey in February found that as many as one in four people in this nation of seven million have smoked marijuana. Among the 90,000 estimated to smoke daily, nearly one-third are teenagers. An additional 500,000 are thought to smoke occasionally.

    Faced with such numbers, officials announced in early March that they were bowing to "social reality" and would take steps to remove the penalties for consumption of marijuana and hashish, also made from hemp, and lift some restrictions on their sale and production.

    The move to liberalize its laws has put Switzerland at odds with its neighbors, which have tougher laws regulating drug use. It has also drawn anger from some United Nations agencies, which were already critical of a Swiss program that provides needles and heroin to certain hard-core addicts in an effort to reduce crime and the spread of AIDS.

    Swiss officials say they are setting a new course on soft drugs - simply because the traditional one is not working. "Young people don't understand anymore why it's forbidden when there are so many problems with alcohol and cigarette smoking," said Dr. Martin Büchi, a federal health department official.

    Health officials are struggling to find ways to control the use of marijuana among teenagers. The draft law would allow sale of small amounts to Swiss residents at least 18 years old. And the shops would not be able to advertise, though some already do.

    The proposed changes - which are unlikely to take effect until 2003 - have inevitably invited comparison with the Netherlands, where marijuana "coffee shops" have become nearly a part of the national identity. Switzerland's controlled opening of the cannabis market, once approved by Parliament, could go further than the law in the Netherlands, where cannabis consumption is only partly decriminalized.

    Critics say the changes will create a magnet for "drug tourists" in a country where young people already flock to hike, ski and take part in other adventure sports.

    Dr. Büchi insists that the measure still discourages use of other drugs like heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy. They will remain illegal, although violations will not necessarily be prosecuted, officials say. Although all details of the law have to be worked out, proponents - including officials in Bern - say the police would be able to concentrate on large-scale producers and traders.

    Passage of the measure is far from sure. The right-wing Swiss People's Party says it will fight any such change in a national referendum. In 1998, voters rejected a broader initiative to legalize all drug consumption.

    But Swiss federal authorities believe that liberalizing cannabis is likely to attract widespread support because it "takes into account the social reality," said Ruth Dreifuss, the former president and social welfare minister - and because 53 percent of those polled in February said they approved of decriminalizing soft drugs.

    If it comes to a vote, the government can count on support from an unlikely group: farmers. The government says hemp is being grown on hundreds of acres - maybe thousands - around Switzerland.

    Growing hemp is legal as long as the tough, fibrous plant is not sold for production of narcotics (parts of the plant are used to make fabric or cosmetics). The proposed law would legalize growing hemp for smoking as long as it was sold in Switzerland.

    Earlier this year, the federal drugs commission estimated that sales for smoking could exceed $1 billion a year - something farmers, hard pressed by declining subsidies and the impact of mad cow disease, would welcome.

    Bern, Switzerland

    Source: New York Times (NY)
    Author: Elizabeth Olson
    Published: March 25, 2001
    Fax: (212) 556-3622
    Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
    Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036

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