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Swiss Politicians Balk at Decriminalizing Marijuana

Parliament's rejection is seen as temporary. European drug policy generally is permissive.

October 12, 2003|Clare Nullis | Associated Press Writer

GENEVA — Philippe, 36, works for that abiding symbol of Swiss respectability -- a bank. He also likes to relax with a joint of marijuana after work.

Until recently, it looked as though his habit might soon cease to be a crime. But then Parliament killed government-backed legislation that would have decriminalized cannabis consumption.

Last month's 96-89 vote was ironic because it leaves Switzerland -- a pioneer in drug liberalization -- on the "no" side in a gradual European trend toward softening the marijuana laws.

"Bans on cannabis and alcohol have always proved a failure," said Pascal Couchepin, Switzerland's strait-laced health minister, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for passage of the reform.

The Netherlands and Belgium have decriminalized pot consumption, Britain has softened the penalties, and France is preparing to toughen fines but eliminate imprisonment.

The Swiss vote provided comfort to those like Swedish Justice Minister Thomas Bodstroem who argue that Europe, in general, is far too permissive about soft drugs.

"They solve the problem on paper but not in reality, and that's deeply regrettable," Bodstroem said in Stockholm.

Swedish law gives fines or prison sentences of up to six months for minor drug offenses, while major crimes can get drug pushers up to 10 years in prison. And "most young people grow up in Sweden without having problems with drugs," Bodstroem said.

However, reformers said they regarded the Swiss vote as a mere blip because many centrist lawmakers didn't want to appear soft on crime and drugs ahead of the Oct. 19 parliamentary elections, in which the right is expected to make big gains.

The reform lobby now hopes that Parliament will pass legislation after election pressures subside.

Although pot remains illegal, Swiss users are confident that police will continue to turn a blind eye, allowing them to puff in peace at home, in parks and even in the smoking cars of trains.

Philippe, the bank employee, says the vote makes no difference to him in practice, although he wanted his surname withheld lest it harm his chances for promotion.

He says he has smoked marijuana for half his life and believes that it is no more harmful than alcohol, although his wife, Catherine, complains bitterly that pot makes him dreamy and forgetful.

Despite last month's vote, Switzerland remains one of the most tolerant European countries toward drugs. It runs a heroin program that allows around 1,300 addicts to shoot up at approved centers with government-provided heroin. The annual cost of about $8 million is covered by the state's health insurance system on the grounds that addiction is an illness rather than a crime.

Although the 9-year-old program is regularly criticized by the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board, Swiss authorities point to a drop in drug-related offenses. Overdose-related fatalities fell to a 16-year low of 167 in 2002. The number of addicts has remained stable at around 30,000.

"The Swiss leapfrogged the Dutch a few years ago when it came to embracing pragmatic drug policy reforms. They showed a leadership role in Europe and around the world," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which favors decriminalization.

"Inevitably, the process takes two steps forward and one step back. And my sense is that what happened in the Swiss Parliament was the one step back before the two steps forward."

The government hoped that the drug legislation would also give the heroin program a permanent legal footing.

It argued that at least one in 15 people in the nation of 7 million are occasional or regular users of cannabis and that police can't cope with the volume.

The upper house had already approved the legislation. The government's Youth Commission endorsed it, as did the independent Swiss Institute for Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, which said cannabis is less dangerous than "alcohol and tobacco, which kill 10,000 people a year in Switzerland [and] are sold with all kinds of marketing wizardry."

But emotions still ran high enough to kill the legislation.

"There are no harmless drugs, and young people need authority," said Claude Ruey, a liberal lawmaker and sponsor of the "no-action motion" that put government reform plans on ice.

Couchepin, the health minister, countered: "We shouldn't regard our young people as criminals, but rather the dealers who sell cannabis to minors."

Elizabeth, who lives in a Swiss village and is the mother of a 14-year-old pot smoker, agreed.

Asking that her surname be withheld, she said that after she discovered her son's marijuana plants growing among her gladioli, he offered her a deal: If he could keep them, he would work on improving his grades.

She said she agreed rather than see him get tangled up with drug dealers offering harder drugs.



Europe's pot policies

Some examples of cannabis policies in Europe:

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