Switzerland decriminalises cannabis

03/10/2013 19:28

From October 1, an adult caught smoking cannabis in Switzerland can escape formal legal proceedings by simply paying a fine. Reactions to the relaxed law, which brings the Swiss in line with other western nations, are divided.

Thick sweet-smelling smoke spirals slowly upwards from a secluded courtyard in the Les Grottes neighbourhood not far from Geneva railway station.
 
“Sure this change is a good thing,” says *Dani, a young cannabis smoker. “I’ve been caught by the police before and I had five grams on me – they thought I was a dealer. I know lots of people who’ve had similar problems.”
 
Growing, consuming and dealing cannabis are all forbidden in Switzerland. But from Tuesday, like a simple traffic offence, anyone over 18 caught in possession of up to ten grams of cannabis will receive a CHF100 ($110) fine and not have it put on their criminal record.
 
Supporters of the revision, which was approved by parliament a year ago, argue that liberalising the legislation and shifting from criminal offence to misdemeanour is a small but realistic approach to cannabis consumption.
 
The change brings Switzerland in line with other European countries that tolerate dope smoking in small amounts (see map). Up to 500,000 people in Switzerland, which has a population of eight million, are believed to be occasional cannabis smokers, with officials noting a downward trend over the past decade.
 
Dani is not totally happy, however. “Quite frankly I think it should have been legalised and controlled by the state. At least then there would be a lot less delinquency.”

 

Trivialising drugs

Opponents, meanwhile, say decriminalising cannabis is contrary to the will of the Swiss people. Five years ago Swiss voters threw out a government proposal to legalise the possession, consumption and controlled trade in cannabis. Four years earlier, parliament had refused to discuss the issue.
 
On his lunch break in Geneva’s Cropettes park, *Jean-Philippe, a 45-year-old French statistician, said the new law was a step in the wrong direction. “Ten grams is a lot and CHF100 is not at all a deterrent. It will simply make consumption more common and trivialise the issue.”
 
Varying attitudes towards cannabis and the new law were also found among people in Zurich.
 
“It makes it too easy to possess drugs and not to be punished. Because I think marijuana can be a step into a career of drugs,” said Michael, 40, at the railway station. 
 
Health and drug experts, on the other hand, believe that relaxing the law is unlikely to have an impact on national cannabis consumption. Quite the contrary, they say, pointing to Portugal and the Netherlands, which have tolerant soft drugs policies and where consumption of cannabis has fallen among young people.
 
Meanwhile, the Swiss debate continues; even former dope smokers are undecided.
 
“Ten years ago I would have been in favour of legalising cannabis,” said Marie, who has two teenage boys. “But today we shouldn’t minimise the dangers. In the 1990s, skunk [a strain of cannabis] had a THC level [the main active chemical in the drug] of about five per cent and was already powerful – today it can reach 30 per cent. It’s almost like a hard drug.”

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