Switzerland prepares for legal pot

On March 9, Switzerland’s Parliament endorsed a draft law which would legalize the use of marijuana, and allow for the creation of shops where pot and hash could be sold.
Under the proposed law, which is due to be debated in June, police could ignore cultivation and sale of small amounts of cannabis, but would devote more resources to stopping large-scale production and export.?

“Decriminalizing the consumption of cannabis and the acts leading up to this takes account of social reality and unburdens police and the courts,” the government said in a statement.

“A certain number of shops could be tolerated as well as the growing of hemp and the production of cannabis products, to the extent that conditions laid down by government decree are fulfilled,” it said.?

A poll released by the Swiss government in February shows that a quarter of the population has sampled marijuana, including over half of Swiss between 15 and 24. The poll also found that 54% of Swiss adults back lessening the penalties for pot possession and sale.

The government promised that any liberalizing of pot laws would be accompanied by a health education campaign similar to that aimed at tobacco smokers.?

Pushing the limits

Current Swiss law only prohibits cannabis “when it is cultivated in order to produce a narcotic.” It is up to the state to prove that your cannabis crop was intended to be smoked for fun, instead of used for fibre, seeds, or even aromatherapy.

In 1995, some Swiss farmers started selling high-potency buds as “aromatherapy satchels” labeled “not for consumption.” These quickly became popular, and by 1998 there were over 200 stores in Switzerland where these could be bought. Although police sometimes pressed charges, and some stores were shut down, the trend was unstoppable.

Swiss marijuana production went from 10 hectares in 1994 to 250 hectares in 1998, and is still climbing. Marijuana can now be bought in most Swiss cities, either in the form of “dried flowers” or ready-to-harvest cannabis “houseplants.”

In 1998, enterprising US activist Shirin Patterson moved to Switzerland and founded the Swiss Hemp Trading Company (SWIHTCO). Taking advantage of Swiss law, she worked with others to cultivate many acres of cannabis, creating “Cannabioland” in a small village outside of Bern (CC#11, CC in Cannabioland). Grown outdoors without standardization, the heavily seeded buds were criticized by some as being “bunkweed,” but they did spur the development of the Swiss pot scene.

Things fell apart for Patterson when she tried to export Swiss pot to the US. Trusting in a US law which allows non-prescription medicines unavailable in the US to be imported from Switzerland, Patterson sent fat sacks of Swiss medicine to a number of American activists and med-pot patients (CC#16, Trouble in Paradise). Some of those who received the packages were charged, and one of them, Jean Marlowe, spent 10 months in jail (see Marijuana misadventure, this issue).

Drug law timeline

In the 1980s the Swiss government took a harder stance against all drugs, giving dealers 20 year sentences and huge fines. The People’s Park in Zurich became a haven for heroin users, becoming known as “Needle Park.”

Realizing that persecution was making things worse, the Swiss Narcotics Commission recommended in 1989 the legalization of personal possession and use of all drugs.

Though this complete legalization never happened, policies were implemented to provide heroin addicts with sterilized needles, and sites were created where heroin users could inject themselves safely.

These policies had success in reducing the spread of disease, drug-related crime, and use of hard drugs. In 1997, Swiss voters showed their support by overwhelmingly approving a referendum to allow state-distribution of heroin to addicts.

In 1998, Swiss voters turned down a referendum proposal to allow sale of all banned drugs from state-run pharmacies. However, those opposed to complete legalization were generally more concerned about an influx of “drug tourists” than the idea of legalization itself.

In April 1999, a government panel urged Swiss legalization of marijuana. They proposed that marijuana sellers would have to pass a training course and be licensed.?Buyers would have to prove that they lived in Switzerland to prevent “drug tourists.”

In June 1999, Switzerland’s Supreme Court ruled that selling MDMA (Ecstasy) was not a serious crime, because although it “is in no way a harmless substance,” it is used mostly by “socially integrated people” and is not a serious health risk.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union or the United Nations. It did sign the UN Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, but only with certain unique provisions, including the right to grow cannabis domestically.